I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a short but useful Bill, giving two important extra rights to local authority tenants throughout Scotland. It takes no rights away, so I hope that we can expect support for it from all sides of the House. It is introduced against the background of the huge success and popularity of our policy of encouraging local authority tenants to buy their own homes if they wish to do so, and also of the undoubted fact that many local authority tenants express strong dissatisfaction at the repairs service that they receive.
A recent survey by the Building Societies Association showed that more than 60 per cent. of Scots regard home ownership as the ideal form of tenure, and no less than 63 per cent. expect to be home owners within the next 10 years. However, when we took office in 1979 only one in three of houses in Scotland were owner-occupied—a figure that had hardly changed over the previous decade. One of our first priorities was, therefore, to give people the opportunity of turning these very clear aspirations into reality.
The Tenants' Right, Etc. (Scotland) Act 1980 for the first time gave secure tenants of three years' standing in Scotland the right to buy their homes. Since the Act came into force, almost 40,000 houses have been sold by district councils, new towns and the Scottish Special Housing Association. For their tenants, the vision of owning their own homes has become a reality. Another 15,000 sales are in the pipeline, and we are approaching the stage where one in 20 of all tenants in Scotland eligible for the right to buy will have gone ahead and bought their own homes.
The right to buy has proved such a success because it is in tune with the wishes of the people concerned. It used to be thought that a successful housing policy involved little more than building and letting more and more standard type houses in perpetuity — in other words, paying no regard to individual choice and preference. Expecting thousands of Scots families to accept for ever that they would just be "allocated" a house wherever the council put them and like it, showed a lack of respect for the aspirations of such families which it is high time to put right. The arrogance of such an approach seems now to be rather old fashioned, but the dire results can be seen all around us in Scotland in the large and soulless housing estates of the 1950s and 1960s.
Since taking office, we have been engaged in the slow but necessary task of reversing that process — in a genuine transfer of assets from the State to the people. Of course, there will continue to be an important role for public sector housing for rent. Many people will be unable to buy, or will simply prefer to continue renting. We have besides a special responsibility to make adequate provision for the elderly, the disabled and other special needs.
Finding the resources to meet these needs will not be easy and one of the most important facts about sales is that they free resources for re-use by councils for these purposes. This year, councils in Scotland will be able to spend more than £90 million which would not otherwise have been available, and that money comes directly from sales.
We have consistently sought through our housing policies to extend freedom of choice in housing, for many people, the preferred choice is to own their own home, but we are equally anxious to protect and extend the basic rights and freedoms of those who will continue renting. There is no doubt that this policy has proved overwhelmingly popular. The Bill implements in full our manifesto commitments to extend these basic rights. It raises the maximum discount from 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. for those who have been tenants for 30 years or more and it extends tenants' rights by enabling the Secretary of State to introduce a right to repair.
The scope of the Bill is rather narrow. The right hon. Gentleman will know of my general support for the principle of the right to buy and of my correspondence with his colleagues suggesting that the reckonable time that should be considered in the case of those who are former tenants of other public housing than that which they are able to buy should be taken into consideration and the scope amended. In particular, I had in mind the position of the tenants of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and other public authorities who have transferred into district council housing. The right hon. Gentleman's colleague was kind enough to say that the Government would consider using this Bill as a vehicle for such a reform.
I am grateful to the hon. Member and I know of his interest in this matter. If he will bear with me I shall say something about that a little later in my speech.
Clause 1 increases the maximum discount, where a tenant exercises his right to buy, from 50 per cent. after 20 years' tenancy to 60 per cent. after 30 years' tenancy. We have come to the view that the present rules do not adequately recognise the position of people whose tenancy goes back more than 20 years. Such tenants will generally be well on in their working lives—often approaching retirement, if not already retired—and the amount of their discount entitlement may be crucial to their decision to buy. The new maximum discount therefore will be of particular help to older tenants wishing to buy and recognises the additional years that they have been contributing, through rents, to the maintenance of their homes. I estimate that at least 350,000 tenants in Scotland would be entitled to benefit from the new rates of discount.
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman means by "cost public funds". We expect that this will be of benefit to public funds because money will be coming in from sales of the houses and that the balance on the other side will make the broad effect between the changes involved more or less neutral. I estimate that about 350,000 tenants will have the opportunity to buy at a discount which at present they do not have. There will be a neutral financial effect and thus there will be no net effect on costs.
Clause 1 also requires authorities to count the time spent living in a house as child of a tenant for right to buy and discount purposes. At present they have a discretion to count such time but are not required to do so. It is necessary to take this step because of the refusal of a minority of local authorities to exercise their discretion, even in cases which called for the utmost sympathy and consideration. One example is typical of many that have been brought to my attention. A middle-aged couple who had been good tenants of long standing gave up—with their council's full agreement—their own home to move in and care for the wife's elderly mother, who was herself a council tenant. After a lengthy illness, the mother died, the tenants stayed on in the house and took over the mother's tenancy, with the full approval of the council. Some years later, they decided to exercise their right to buy but they found when they applied that their council would only count their tenancy from the death of the elderly mother and refused to use its discretion to recognise the couple's previous tenancy record. Such examples illustrate the lengths to which some councils will go when they permit dogma and prejudice to override human sympathy. By providing that councils must always count time spent as child of a tenant, we shall ensure that these cases cannot arise in the future.
Clause 1 also makes certain transitional provisions. The new rules, if approved, will apply to fresh right-to-buy applications made after the Bill comes into force and to current applications where the tenant has not, at the time the Bill comes into force, received an offer to sell from his landlord. Tenants who have received, but not yet formally accepted, an offer to sell at the time when the Bill comes into force, and who believe that they might benefit from the new rules, may wish to consider withdrawing their current application and re-applying, and the clause provides that in such circumstances they may re-apply immediately, without having to wait the 12 months which must normally elapse between applications. Purchasers who may be considering withdrawing and re-applying in this way will of course need to bear in mind that their houses will be revalued at the date of their second application and also that their mortgage entitlement may be affected, if their personal circumstances have changed in any way in the interim.
Many sales take place on a voluntary basis, without the tenant having to rely on his statutory right to buy. In such cases, I have already given authorities permission to give a maximum rate of discount of 60 per cent. to tenants who qualify.
We have also been giving further consideration to the present requirement that a tenant must have been a secure tenant for three years before he can exercise the right to buy. Clearly, it is important that tenants who are given the right to buy should be bona fide tenants, but there is no particular magic about the three-year cut-off point. We have decided that the qualification period should be reduced from three years to two years and that the discount should start at 32 per cent. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, has announced that a similar change will be made to the right to buy rules in England and Wales. A Government amendment will be introduced at a later stage to give effect to this change. I estimate that such a change would give another 30,000 tenants the right to buy.
We have also been giving attention to the arrangements under which tenancies of houses provided by certain Government Departments and related bodies can be counted towards qualifying time for the right to buy and for discount, while others do not. At present the armed forces, the Forestry Commission and health boards are included, and I have received a number of representations that tenants should also be entitled to count time which they spent in houses provided by, for example, the Ministry of Defence, the coastguard and lighthouse services and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. I propose therefore that section 1(10) of the 1980 Act should be extended to allow periods as tenants of these and certain other Government Departments and related central Government bodies to qualify for right to buy and discount purposes. A Government amendment will be introduced at a later stage to give effect to this.
I am only trying to be as helpful and open as possible. I assume that the hon. Gentleman will be very much in favour of these additional benefits for his constituents. I certainly hope to gain his support not only tonight but throughout the Committee stage.
Clause 2 will strengthen the tenants' charter by enabling me to introduce a right to repair. By far the largest number of representations that I receive about housing matters express dissatisfaction with local authority repair services. Tenants appear to have to wait an inordinate time for even fairly minor and routine repairs to be carried out. I propose to introduce a scheme that will give public sector tenants the right to undertake repairs to their houses, which would otherwise be the landlords' responsibility, if they wish, and to be reimbursed by their landlords. Within that broad framework, the detailed operation of the scheme will be the subject of subsequent regulations.
I understand that all, or most, of the Opposition parties have committed themselves to strengthening tenants' rights on repairs. I hope that all Opposition Members will welcome my proposals. In preparing an outline scheme, I wish to take account of the views of hon. Members expressed in today's debate. Indeed, given the general support of Opposition Members, I expect to receive much useful advice on how to implement the scheme.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I had not expected to receive advice so quickly, but I welcome it. I think it almost inconceivable that there will not be extensive debates on this matter in Committee. That will be very much the decision of the Committee. Opposition Members may wish to table amendments. It is important that before finalising the detailed arrangements we should consult not only within the House but with outside bodies that also hold a view.
The general principles underlying right-to-repair schemes are, of course, well known from experience of non-statutory schemes run by some of the more enlightened authorities south of the border. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has now published his proposals for a general scheme to operate in England and Wales. If the House supports the principle of a Scottish scheme, I shall proceed to early consultations with local authorities, tenants' organisations and other interested outside bodies on its precise form. In the meantime, however, it may be for the convenience of the House if I deal with one or two of the more general concerns that have been expressed about our proposals.
First, a number of tenants' associations have been convinced that we are preparing to remove the obligations on landlords to repair and to transfer that obligation to the tenants. Nothing could be further from the truth. The landlord's duties will remain intact, and only if a tenant decides to exercise his right to arrange a repair himself would the landlord's duties be removed.
Secondly, there is concern that the landlord's duties would be removed in their entirety if a tenant decided to exercise his right to repair. That again is a misconception. It may by helpful to the House if I make it clear that our intention is that the landlord's obligations will be suspended only in respect of repairs that the tenant has applied to carry out, and only for such period as the tenant may have under the scheme to complete the repair.
Thirdly, there is concern that tenants will be out of pocket while waiting to be reimbursed by the landlord, which would especially hit elderly tenants. I appreciate that concern. We shall be expecting authorities to make arrangements for speedy reimbursement of costs, and it may be desirable to cover that in the regulations. But it is the tenant who will decide whether to arrange the repair himself. If, for financial or other reasons, he decides not to exercise his rights, the landlord will remain responsible for the repair.
Finally, the landlords may be concerned that the arrangements will require them to pay for shoddy work, and might cause them to overspend their budget in any particular year. I fully recognise those problems and the detailed scheme on which I shall be consulting may need to include provisions for approval and inspection of tenants' repairs that are designed to safeguard the landlord's interest also.
Because of concerns such as those, some people have argued that, rather than confer additional rights on tenants, we should impose additional duties on their landlords— for example, by setting out a timetable for repairs. I would be reluctant to follow that course, not least because the circumstances and the urgency can vary so much in individual cases. But the introduction of a right to repair in no way diminishes my concern that housing authorities should provide an efficient service for the maintenance and repair of their stock. My Department has recently Commissioned research into the way housing authorities organise such work, and especially into the way in which they deal with ad hoc repairs at the request of tenants, in order to make recommendations about efficient practice. I hope that that work will lead to significant improvements in the service provided to those tenants who decide, for one reason or another, not to exercise their right to repair.
I look forward to an open and genuine process of consultation on the details of the right-to-repair scheme during the coming months. We are not entering the process with the intention of imposing any preconceived system. I do believe, however, that the introduction of a right to repair, which will be entirely optional and will in no way diminish the landlord's obligations or the tenant's rights at law, will significantly extend freedom of choice in an area that I know causes great concern to tenants. At the same time, I believe that there will be found to be savings for local authorities, as has already proved to be the case where similar schemes have been tried in England.
Those, then, are the main provisions of this short Bill. The most interesting aspect of the debate will be to learn of the attitude to the Bill of the present official Opposition. We understand from reading newspapers that changes are afoot in their attitude to council house sales. Some Opposition Members have realised the extreme unpopularity of their efforts to prevent council tenants having the right to buy, and are alleged to be trying to persuade the new leadership to abandon what is, in some cases, an insensitive and sometimes cruel policy. I hope that this change of attitude is really happening and that we will be told about it today. We will certainly welcome it unreservedly. It will also be useful to know whether the Scottish part of the Labour party agrees with that change and whether it will throw its not inconsiderable weight behind the new deputy leader of the Labour party, who is credited with leading the fight to make the change.
This is, in short, an important test of whether Scottish voters, especially the 250,000 who deserted the Labour party earlier this year, can look for a change of heart and a change of policy that recognises their clearly expressed wishes.
I look, therefore, not only for the overwhelming support of the House, but for clear support from the Opposition.
Mr. Bruce Milian:
This is the Second Reading of the Bill. It is usual during a Second Reading debate for the Minister to set the Bill in the context of a rather wider range of policy. It is significant that the Secretary of State has stuck closely to the Bill and said nothing about general housing policy in Scotland. I am not in the least surprised by that, given the Government's appalling record in the past four years.
I want to set the Bill against the background of housing policy generally and to talk about improvement and repair grants—something that the Secretary of State studiously avoided today. There are other matters about which my hon. Friends may want to speak. They may want to speak about the reduction of housing support grant during the past four years to a figure which currently, in real terms, is only about one quarter of the figure in 1979 when the Government took office. Local authorities, which own 40 per cent. of council housing in Scotland, including important authorities such as Edinburgh, Dundee and Renfrew, are now excluded from housing support grant.
My hon. Friends may want to talk about how during the past four years the Government have forced up rents of Scottish council and other public housing by more than 100 per cent. They may want to talk about the way in which the Government have set revenues against capital allocations during the past four years so that there has been further emphasis on the inadequacy of capital allocations to Scottish local authorities to deal with our many housing problems.
My hon. Friends may want to talk about the inadequacy of sheltered housing in Scotland and the difficulties faced by local authorities in maintaining even a modest housing programme. They may want to talk about the Government's steadfast refusal so far to do anything to help local authorities to deal with the appalling problem of dampness. They may want to talk about the Under-Secretary's refusal within the past week or so to help Scottish local authorities with dealing with much of the system building, the latest example being the 13ison houses.
There are many problems in other areas, and the Government have so far refused to give special help to local authorities to solve them.
The Secretary of State has mentioned the importance that he attaches to home ownership in Scotland, and my hon. Friends may want to draw attention to the fact that even the recent increase in private sector starts in Scotland does not bring the Government's position anywhere near the one that they inherited in 1978–79. In 1978, under the Labour Government, Scottish private sector starts were 16,600; in 1979 they were 15,400. After the Government had given a great boost to home ownership, about which the Secretary of State keeps boasting, in 1980 the figure dropped from 15,400 to 9,700. The figure has increased a bit since, but it is nothing like the figure that the Secretary of State inherited in 1979. It is clear that even the 1983 figure for private housing, let alone the public sector, will not be as good as that achieved by the Labour Government.
The Secretary of State abused his position when opening the debate today by not mentioning last week's announcement on improvement and repair grants. The Bill deals with tenants' right of repair. [Interruption.] Of course the Government do not want to talk about this, but I will talk about it at some length. Last week, the Secretary of State put Scottish local authorities and housing associations, not to mention private builders and the construction industry, into chaos by the statement about improvement and repair grants.
I do not believe that the Government, when they made that statement, fully appreciated the damage that they were doing. When the Prime Minister was quizzed about it this afternoon, she obviously knew nothing about the position in Scotland. She did not answer the question. She gave a completely irrelevant answer. I believe that neither she nor the Secretary of State understand the damage that the Government have done in Scotland.
The Secretary of State appears to think that it is a matter of some amusement that in Glasgow, for example, the district council has already been forced to freeze all further applications for improvement and repair grants. Given the appalling housing that we still have in parts of Glasgow, I do not consider that to be at all amusing. I consider it to be tragic. It is an inevitable consequence, not just in Glasgow but in Dundee and, I believe, in Edinburgh because, as I understand it, the position is being considered by Edinburgh district council today. I believe that it is appalling that all these grants in our major cities in Scotland will have to be forzen as a result of a decision taken, not on a calm consideration of the problem, but out of panic. It is the first of the panic decisions to be taken by the Government in their desperate and unnecessary attempt to cut public expenditure.
It is important to know why last week's decision has caused such chaos. It is not just because the grant has been reduced from 90 per cent. to 50 per cent. That taken by itself, although some of us regret that that should happen, would not have caused the chaos. The Government could even justify the reduction in percentage by saying, "There was never any commitment to carry the percentage side beyond 31 March 1984."
The chaos is caused by the other parts of last week's announcement to which the Government were careful on the day of the announcement to give little prominence but which were immediately identified by the local authorities and other bodies in Scotland interested in housing as causing immense damage to housing programmes as a whole, not just in the current year but in 1984–85 and further ahead.
The Government also announced last week that for 1984–85 local authorities should assume that their total allocations for housing on the housing revenue account side dealing with new building and modernisation in the public sector and on the non-HRA side in the private sector would either be the same or less than their original allocations for 1983–84. However, in the current year, the original allocations for the non-HRA sector — the improvement and repair sector—are nothing like the present position, because the Government also announced that local authorities could spend as much as they liked in that sector during 1983–84. Therefore, the expenditure by local authorities in Scotland during 1983–84 will be considerably more than the original allocations to which they will now be restricted and which will perhaps be restricted even further in 1984–85.
The Under-Secretary, who has not exactly distinguished himself since he took responsibility for housing a few weeks ago — he is the Foreign Secretary of the Scottish Office in terms of his achievement so far— gave some figures the other day. He said that in 1982–83 expenditure on repair and improvement grants was £64 million. It is reckoned that it will be £140 million in 1983–84. We of course welcome that.
What will it be in 1984–85? It is obvious that there has been a considerable increase during the current year. Therefore, equally obviously, there will be a savage decrease in 1984–85. As the Under-Secretary has been saying a number of things about this outside the House and has been trying to play down the crisis, perhaps when he replies he will tell us what he estimates the reduction, even on a stand-still basis, will be in 1984–85. He must know the figures. It would be helpful if either he or the Secretary of State gave the figures now, but at least he should give those figures when he replies to the debate tonight.
This savage reduction will affect Glasgow. The problem has already arisen in Dundee and Edinburgh and it will arise in all local authority areas in Scotland. I mention Glasgow because I have the relevant figures and because Glasgow district council had an especially large programme using repair and improvement grants for its tenements, and one on which the Government congratulated it. Now the council has had its feet cut from under it.
As my hon. Friend said, it has had its feet cawed away from under it.
In 1983–84 the original allocation for Glasgow on the HRA side was £60 million and on the non-HRA side, with which we are principally concerned, £29 million, making a total of £89 million. I do not know what the eventual outcome will be for the current year, which will be affected by last week's announcement, but on the non-HRA side it will be considerably higher than £29 million. Therefore, the amounts allocated to Glasgow for next year will represent a savage reduction in the amount of money spent on private sector repairs and improvement grants.
The position is worse than that. Local authorities were encouraged to go ahead with the schemes—the sky was their limit. Up to date, the Government could boast only about that part of their housing policy. Local authorities in Glasgow are already legally committed in 1984–85 to projects on the HRA side which will take up £55 million of the £60 million allocation, and on the non-HRA side they are committed to applications already in the pipeline for improvements up to an expenditure of £57 million, which compares with £29 million that they are now being told they must expect. One does not have to be a genius at mathematics to know that those figures do not add up.
Glasgow district council cannot meet the terms of last week's circular. Although council representatives met Ministers in the past few weeks, they had no warning of it, and the Scottish Office did not know about it either. The directive has come from the Treasury, and the Secretary of State has simply lain down and allowed himself to be trampled on in agreeing to it. It cannot be achieved.
The Government are using another device, and I ask the House to bear with me because although it sounds technical it is not. Up to date there has been little flexibility between the HRA and the non-HRA sides.
They have been two distinct blocks. Local authorities that might have wanted the flexibility to spend money according to their priorities were told that they could not take money from the non-HRA block and put it into the other block, or vice versa. Now the Government are making it one block. Suddenly there is to be flexibility, but the local authorities do not want it. The Government have got themselves and the local authorities into a jam and believe that they can get out of it by giving a spurious appearance of flexibility. However, as I said, Glasgow district council has already committed on one block almost its entire allocation for 1984–85. If it were to switch, even if it were legally possible for it to do so, there would be a complete cessation of new building in Glasgow, no sheltered housing would be started and there would be no further modernisation of council houses, at least until the end of 1984–85 and perhaps beyond. Therefore, it is no wonder that the local authorities have had to impose a freeze, but even with the freeze Glasgow district council cannot meet the Government's figures. Although it has frozen, as from the date of last week's announcement, any firm application for improvement or repair grants, the figures still do not add up.
May I give some examples of what that means in practice? The Government have been trying to encourage local authorities to co-operate with private builders—I approve of that — and Glasgow has taken up that suggestion. Of the £57 million that is committed for 1984–85, £35 million is for agency agreements with individual owner-occupiers where the local authority has taken over responsibility in a combined way. In tenements especially that is the only way in which improvements can be made. That has all been prejudiced. Improvements in the city have been prejudiced. There was co-operation between the local authority and private builders and developers, but much of that work depended on the availability of improvement and repair grants.
Partnership agreements, such as the one to be operated by Barratts at Priesthill, have been prejudiced. I met housing association representatives last week, and they were appalled by the announcement and extremely worried about its effect on housing association developments. I have not mentioned the effect on the construction industry and on the many small firms in Glasgow and elsewhere that have built up their work force and their business on the basis of improvement and repair grants. Again, they will have the feet cut from under them. Yet the Conservative party is the party of the small business. It is the party that was supposed to be encouraging the construction industry. The Under-Secretary of State wrote a letter to Councillor Kernaghan on 10 October saying that the Government wished to encourage capital investment in housing. Yet a week later we had the Government's announcement.
At present in Glasgow there are 25,000 owner-occupied houses that are either approved or in the pipeline for improvement and repair grants. Had it not been for last week's announcement, Glasgow district council would have expected another 15,000 applications by owner-occupiers by 31 March 1984. Each of those owner-occupiers has now been denied, not just a 90 per cent. or a 50 per cent. grant, but any grant at all. The grant is now zero per cent., yet the Secretary of State when introducing the Bill had the impertinence to say how important it was that people should own their houses and that the Government were in favour of owner-occupiers. Tell that to the 15,000 owner-occupiers in Glasgow who will be denied grants because of last week's announcement.
It is no wonder that the Tories in Glasgow district council are rebelling. It is the first time in their lives that they have rebelled about anything, but we welcome it nevertheless. It is typical of the Tory party in Scotland that the sycophantic city branch of the party has dissociated itself from the rebellion by Bailie Aitken and his colleagues in Glasgow district council. It would be nice to see a little rebellion on this matter from Conservative Members. We cannot have it from Glasgow Tory Members because there are none, but other Conservative Members must know how appallingly inept and tragic last week's decision is. The Secretary of State did not mention it today, but I hope that some Tory Members will make it clear to the Government that that decision simply cannot stand and must be reversed. At the very least it must be modified or there will be disastrous consequences for many people, not only in Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh,' but in every Scottish local authority.
I should like to deal now with the specific provisions of the Bill. The Secretary of State is pleased that I should be doing that because he does not want to talk about the disastrous statement that he made last week. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will have plenty of time to reply because I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) will be his usual brief self and will allow the hon. Gentleman ample opportunity to answer these points at the end of the debate.
There is no disagreement with the Secretary of State on the principle of the right to repair. That was mentioned in our election manifesto, which referred to private landlords as well. If there is a right to repair in public property, why should there not be a right to repair in private property? Why is that not in the Bill?
It is quite appalling that the Government should produce a Bill—we have the Second Reading today — without consultations with COSLA, Shelter, Age Concern or housing associations. There has been no consultation on the right-to-repair provisions. There are no details of the scheme and, what is more, this will all be done by regulation. When we have the scheme, there will be no way to amend it.
I was told this afternoon—and I could hardly believe it—that the Government believe that the Bill should go into Committee next Tuesday. If that is their idea, they should disabuse themselves of it straightaway. If the Bill goes into Committee next Tuesday, they will make no progress with it until we have more details of what is provided for under the right to repair. Unless we have these details before the Bill goes into Committee, I warn the Government that they may put the Bill into Committee but they will be a heck of a long time getting it out of Committee. We must have these details before we discuss the matter in Committee.
Tenants' dissatisfaction about repairs is a genuine problem. There is probably more dissatisfaction about that than about any other aspect of housing. It is true that there is a common law right to have repairs carried out, but anyone who has tried to exercise that right, particularly against a private landlord, will know that in practice it is an extremely difficult thing to do. I do not agree with the Scottish Tenants Organisation, which says that this should be left as a common law right. It would be nice if we could do that, but it does not work in practice. It is not enforceable without considerable difficulty. Even if we agree the principle of the right to repair, we must get the details right because if we do not tenants will be in a worse position.
We already have the DoE document. It would have been nice had the Secretary of State told us that he had in mind something like that document because he has already told us that he will make two amendments to the Bill, apparently slavishly following the DoE's proposals for England. At least the DoE document is available; we have nothing from the Scottish Office.
What is the scope of the repairs that will be covered? What will be the value of repairs? What will be the procedures for the way in which the tenant should approach the landlord? What will be the procedure for the response? What will be the grounds for refusal? What about the respective rights of tenant and landlord when approval is given? How much will the reimbursement be? The DoE document mentions 75 per cent.; not 100 per cent. Is that what the Government have in mind? Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will tell us when he replies. How will the reimbursement be calculated? Will it be on standard costs or on the actual costs that the landlord estimates? That is an important matter.
What about those—the Secretary of State acknowledges the problem—who cannot afford to spend the money in the first instance, particularly the elderly? Age Concern has expressed anxiety about them. The anxiety is not only that, as they may not have the money in the first place, they cannot participate in the scheme; the anxiety is that if the scheme were a success and was taken up by people who could afford the outlay, who were more aware of their rights and were more aggressive in asserting them, there could be a diversion of repair effort which ultimately would be to the detriment of those who were not able to participate in the scheme. Local authorities are not working with limitless or expandable budgets for repairs. If one group of tenants is exerting its rights, it may be at the expense of others who for one reason or another cannot exert theirs. There is a danger of squeezing out.
I should like now to deal with the question of appeal to the sheriff. If one tells an ordinary person, a council tenant, that if he has a dispute with his landlord he can appeal to the sheriff, he will think that that is a joke. With all respect to the Secretary of State, if there is to be an appeal there will have to be an appeal procedure which does not involve an appeal to the sheriff. There must be some other appeal procedure. These are preliminary points that can be exhaustively considered in Committee.
Perhaps I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman. It would have been possible to lay down a complete set of rules on all these points, but we took the view that it would be much better to get the views of the Committee. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Committee will have the maximum information about the various forms in which these points can be dealt with. There will be no question of following exactly or slavishly any arrangements which may be made in England and Wales. These arrangements will be specifically tailored for Scotland.
We shall see how far that promise is discharged. The idea that there should be no consultation before the Bill reaches Second Reading is utterly unsatisfactory.
I should like to deal with the sale provisions of the Bill. I restate categorically —this is what the Secretary of State wants to hear—our opposition to the unqualified right to buy regardless of local authority views, regardless of the needs of the locality, regardless of overall housing policy and regardless of the rights of other tenants and prospective tenants. We shall vote against the Bill on that basis. It need hardly be said that we oppose the increase in maximum discount to 60 per cent., as we opposed the original maximum of 50 per cent. We believe that that is giving away public assets at knock-down prices, and we are against it.
We equally oppose the elimination of the single piece of limited discretion that was available to the local authorities in the original Bill regarding the families of tenants. Even that has been taken away by the Bill. The Secretary of State cannot abide the thought that a local authority may decide to make its own decision on these matters. We take exactly the opposite view. We believe that the decisions on all these matters should be taken by the democratically elected local authorities in Scotland —[Interruption.] They know a good deal more than the Secretary of State, who knows damn all about council housing in Scotland or much else. Such issues should be left to the decision of Scottish local authorities. The only question facing a Labour Government would be whether to make the right of local authorities to take such decisions completely unrestricted, or whether we should try to reach an agreement with them on several of the important issues that arise from any sort of council house sales. As we know from experience of the past two or three years, issues have already arisen.
When the original Bill was introduced we said that the best houses—the cottage type of dwelling rather than the flat—in the best localities would be sold. That is precisely what has happened. There is no denying that, because the Government's own figures demonstrate it. I have a note of the address of every council house that has been sold or is in the process of being sold in my constituency. It simply confirms the fears that I expressed when the original Bill was introduced —that the best houses in the best areas would be sold, and it is nonsense for any Conservative Member to deny that.
If a Labour Government were in power, the policy would have to be decided directly as regards the Scottish Special Housing Association and the new towns, and there would be very strict limitations on sales with regard to the localities, the numbers and the discounts given. I certainly hope that we would also be able to reach an understanding with the local authorities on these issues. Of course, that understanding would be reached in the context of overall housing policy. Much of the discussion about council house sales has been bedevilled by the fact that it has been divorced from overall housing policy. It has been separated from the housing plans introduced by the Labour Government, which would again be implemented fully by us.
In addition to re-emphasising the importance of housing plans, we are committed to an increased Government subsidy to local authority housing, thus reversing the process that has so disastrously affected Scotland in the past four years. We are also committed to restoring to local authorities the freedom to fix their own rents. Indeed, that is another freedom that this Government have taken away from them. We will also restore adequate capital allowances. I have little doubt that such a housing policy would enable us to reach an agreement with local authorities on some of the difficult problems that arise from any type of council house sale.
The Bill only touches the fringes of Scotland's housing problems. In the past four years, Government housing policy has been disastrous. Last week's announcement was only the latest example of Government ineptitude and of their failure to understand the problems of Scottish housing. With unemployment so high in Scotland and with the construction industry still in the doldrums, one would think that the Government would at least try to preserve or encourage the one part of the construction industry— the improvement and repair side—that has been doing reasonably well. Instead, last week's announcement has made the situation much worse. Therefore, we shall vote against the Bill, not only because of its provisions on council house sales, but as a general condemnation of Government housing policy in Scotland.
I am glad to have this opportunity to speak on the Bill and to support the Government's plans to strengthen council tenants' rights
against the landlord. On Second Reading of what is now the Tenants' Rights (Scotland) Act the Secretary of State said:
The procedure that we have devised will make it absolutely straightforward for a tenant to buy his house while, at the same time, it will back up his right to buy with a comprehensive set of safeguards for his interests, on which he may call if necessary."—[Official Report, 14 January 1980; Vol. 976, c. 1250.]
As is all too well known to hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, my right hon. Friend, regrettably, grossly underestimated the sheer petty-mindedness of some Labour councillors and the dedicated zeal with which they would devote themselves to denying those tenants their rights.
Instead of accepting the democratic results of two general elections, including one particularly devastating one, and implementing the will of Parliament, and instead of acknowledging the overwhelming opinion of their supporters and of council tenants, Labour councils have looked for every conceivable delaying tactic, procedural dodge and obstruction.
I know because I receive 300 letters a week from council tenants and others who have to put up with such filibustering from Stirling district council. Those on the Opposition Front Bench will no doubt bear testimony to that, because they, too, find such letters in their postboxes. Some of the worst authorities in Scotland have even taken it upon themselves to get together for little secret conferences, financed by the ratepayers, so that they can discuss ideas, exchange views and co-ordinate their campaigns to frustrate those democratic decisions — [Interruption.] That is not only a serious allegation, but a serious fact. The widely differing proportions of houses sold in England and Scotland bear testimony to the success of those tactics and to the frustration and misery caused to ordinary working men and women who wish to fulfil a lifetime's ambition to own the houses in which they live.
I am pleased that the polls show increasing heavy demand for home ownership in Scotland. However, the sad fact is that only about 35 per cent. are owner-occupiers in Scotland. That is a staggering figure, given that it is about half the level of owner-occupation found behind the iron curtain in such countries as Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Hungary. The system that seeks to tie the tenant to the council housing system is not only worthy of criticism in itself, but has serious effects on the Scottish economy as a whole. It restricts mobility of labour. Worse, it wastes scarce housing resources.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not aware that in varying parts of Scotland the employment prospects are slightly better — [Interruption.] On the other hand, given his blinkered nationalism, I should not be surprised that it did not occur to him that many people in Scotland would like the opportunity of going for a job in the south, but because they are tied to the council house system cannot do so.
The system also wastes scarce housing resources. Hon. Members have only to look at their postbags and at the systems that have been devised to carry out simple transfers of tenancy. Points systems have disintegrated and are failing to work properly. I recognise that I speak with a slightly jaded eye when having to deal with the Stirling authority, which is one of the most irresponsible councils in Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the irresponsibility of Stirling council. Will he tell us who on Stirling district council—probably one of the Tory group—gave him the names and addresses of all the council's tenants or former tenants who had bought or applied to buy their council houses so that he, as Tory candidate during the general election, could write the most bribery-type letters to those tenants and ex-tenants to try to buy their votes?
I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman asks the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr Millan) he will tell him the source. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was about to ask me to justify my allegation that I had an irresponsible authority. Although he did not, I shall do so. It was depressing to witness how the councillors allowed their political views on council house sales to prejudice their administrative competence.
While the proposals to increase the discount to 60 per cent. will undoubtedly help some people who have a limited working life remaining to have the benefit of home ownership, most of the people concerned are in their fifties. While the change has helped them, why has the Secretary of State stopped at 60 per cent? If the aim is to help older tenants, why has he not extended the discount further? If the scheme were extended by 10 or 20 years, those who were tenants before the war and are now at or near retirement might be able to enjoy their retirement in a home of their own.
I consider the arguments relating to the loss of housing stock rather tawdry, to say the least, when there are about 20,000 empty council properties in Scotland and evidence shows that the sales policy has enabled properties which could not be let to be sold.
Will the hon. Gentleman give some examples of that? It is not good enough just to expect us to accept that that is the position. Will he give details of where those properties are?
I refer to the Martello tower scheme in Edinburgh as well as the Easterhouse scheme, which the Princess of Wales visited and commended. There are other examples. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not know of them.
As to the loss of vital public resources, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report prepared for the Department of the Environment in January 1980 — the appraisal of the financial effects of council house sales. That study showed that, looking at various time scales, the result of the sales policy has been an overall saving for local and central Government. I reserve my greatest enthusiasm for the provision which refers to local discretion over how many years tenants can count when they have succeeded to a tenancy from their parents. a matter about which I have had considerable correspondence with the right hon. Gentleman.
The Bill will be received with jubilation in some parts of my constituency, as Stirling district council has been resolute in its determination to refuse to exercise its
discretion. I understand that that power was introduced on Report after discussion with COSLA. I can hardly do better than quote the words of the then Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), who said:
A person might live with aged parents and might not technically be the tenant but, over a period of years, that person might have been paying the rent. For example, a single woman might be supporting her parents but never have become the tenant of the property. If such a person can satisfy the local authority, it is right that her support should be recognised."—[Official Report, 11 June 1980; Vol. 986, c. 607.]
There was unanimous agreement on both sides of the House that this discretion appeared not to extend to the practical implementation of the Act. Some councils have applied their discretion as initially intended, but others have granted the discretion on a blanket basis. More frequently, the meaner and more insensitive councils have used the blanket basis of discretion to emphasise their political hostility and have frequently refused elderly people the opportunities which they should not have been denied. I find it unacceptable, as I hope the House does, that the arbitrary political whims of local councillors should mean that tenants in one area are worse off than those in other areas. After all, those people are buying under the same national scheme.
I am delighted that tenants purchasing their houses under the old terms will be able to reapply for increased discounts without facing any penalty. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that that is widely publicised.
The final benefit introduced in the Bill is one that will be warmly welcomed by most tenants, though not, apparently, by the Scottish Tenants Organisation, which claims to represent them. Every hon. Member must know of the frustration and anger that is caused when a tenant reports that a repair is required and nothing happens for days, weeks, months and sometimes even years.
Every hon. Member knows the excuses that councils trot out, one after the other, that the problem is one of money or management, or whatever, and how the buck is passed from one authority to another. Few Opposition Members would admit it, but I am sure they know in their hearts that much of the blame lies with direct labour organisations, which have proved to be expensive, wasteful and inefficient. At their best—and they are all too often seen at their worst—they argue that they must have work in hand to balance their workload. At worst, their claim to deal with priorities often has more to do with covering up their lack of organisation. Either way, the tenant faces delays.
Some of my constituents have been waiting two years for elementary repairs such as work on doors and windows. Looking around the Chamber I should be surprised if many hon. Members have not had similar experiences. If home owners can pick up a telephone and get three estimates and, as a rule, get the job done reasonably quickly and well, it is wrong that council tenants should be denied that facility. Unless the house is falling down or flooding, the council tenants must wait.
Indeed, but I shall not discuss that in this debate. A debate on that subject would involve dealing with rent controls and the way in which they have driven landlords into a position in which they are unable to carry out repairs. I am referring now to the position in which local government has more and more resources for the purpose of providing repairs, while the work carried out has become worse and worse and less and less.
I do not wish to dismiss out of hand the points made by the Scottish Tenants Organisation about the right to repairs, as they are crucial, but I think that its faith in the common law is a little misguided, especially as the remedy depends on the landlord refusing or deliberately failing to carry out repairs. We are concerned not with refusal but with an inordinate delay before work is carried out, often to poor standards.
I support the suggestion of fixed time limits for the period in which repairs should be carried out. Without such time limits we shall have eternal arguments and wrangling about what is a reasonable delay. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not lose sight of one need in drafting the scheme, and that is the need for certainty. Unless every tenant knows exactly where he stands with the scheme it will fail, and it will fail because very few people will want to risk incurring bills and obligations which in the end may not be paid or may be refused.
I am anxious to have the hon. Gentleman's opinion on one matter, particularly as he has English experience, having spent most of his political career, as I understand it, in the Westminster city council. As he knows, in most English schemes a job rate is calculated—a cost for the job—and the tenant is paid only 75 per cent. of that. Would the hon. Gentleman commend that to the Government as a model for Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman omits to say that in many of the test cases in Hammersmith and elsewhere, when 75 per cent. of the cost is paid to the tenant, the tenant actually makes a profit. The funny thing is that when competition in involved, the job seems to be done at half the price. However, it is something that we should look at, because I am sure that most of our tenants would be delighted not only to have their repairs carried out, and carried out quickly, but to make a profit as well. That is something that not even a politician could promise.
Publicity is essential. I do not mean just printing a few leaflets. Stirling district council has yet to distribute the tenants' charter leaflet, which no doubt was printed at great expense by the Scottish Office, and it has yet to distribute the special leaflet about the right to buy. Indeed, before the general election campaign, when I met tenants on the doorstep who were desperate to buy but found it difficult to do so, I was surprised to discover that I could not even get copies of the leaflet from the district housing offices. I hope that we shall bear in mind the forgetfulness of some councils in circulating information on some matters.
I said that I welcomed the Bill. I do so with a little sadness, if only because its aims are limited. It deals with three aspects of tenants' rights which are important, but it does not deal with the biggest problem, the dreadful difficulty which too many tenants are experiencing in exercising their right to buy. I shall not go over the ground again about the councils which are failing to meet their obligations under the Act. I hope that my right hon. Friend is well appraised of the facts. I hope that he realises how few offers are made within the statutory two-month period. It takes an average of 22 months to buy a council house in Stirling. That is a major improvement on 36 months, but it is still too long. Only a tiny proportion, less than 10 per cent., of the offers are made within the statutory period.
I am tired of receiving letters in every post about tenants whose rights are being denied by petty bureaucrats and petty dictators. I hope that the Minister will examine the returns of some district councils, particularly Stirling, with a critical eye. If my postbag is anything to go by, I think he will find them interesting reading. I hope that he will assure us that there will be further amendments to the Bill to strengthen the position of tenants who are exercising their right to buy, and to encourage them to do so.
I hope also, incidentally, that my right hon. Friend will consider the disinclination of regional councils to offer surplus property on the same basis as one would expect of the district councils. It is wholly unacceptable to me, my constituents, and I hope to all hon. Members, for a council, for its own petty political ends, to deny people their statutory rights. We promised in our 1979 and 1980 manifestos that council tenants would be able to buy their council homes. For far too many people that promise has yet to be fulfilled.
It saddens me somewhat to listen to a new Conservative Member who speaks with all the arrogance of youth — which is understandable—showing his ignorance of the housing problems of people in Scotland and, if I may say so, a complete lack of understanding of the background of the Labour and trade union movements which fought for generations for the right of Scottish people to have decent houses.
I intended to make a short contribution in this debate, in the full knowledge that that could earn me a place on the Committee, until I heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) threatening dire consequences, with late sittings and the rest. Now I am not so sure, although I should like the opportunity to hear the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) telling us in greater detail about the masses of correspondence that he receives in his postbag. I think that we could guarantee to knock some of the cockiness out of him if he were a member of the Committee.
As my right hon. Friend said, we need a general debate on housing. He rightly covered a wide field, including repairs, grants, and all the rest. I shall concentrate more on what I regard as a tawdry little Bill. It is essentially a three-clause Bill. I know that officially it has only two clauses, but it is really a three-card trick. The clauses are so insignificant that it is no wonder that the Secretary of State said that it needs further amendment and that the clause on repairs will probably need to be dealt with by regulation.
Let me give the background to the issue of sales. It is clear that we as a party oppose the indiscriminate sale of council houses. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Govan thinks he is still making his speech.
Why should the hon. Gentleman use the words "indiscriminate sale of council houses"? These council houses are being sold to sitting tenants. There is nothing indiscriminate about giving a person the right to buy the house he is sitting in, for which he is paying rent, but which he wants to purchase.
I thought that the matter was clearly understood. It is giving a right to a tenant regardless of the housing plans and policies of the local authority. I thought that that was understood, even by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie).
I re-read the Secretary of State's speech on Second Reading of the Bill in 1980. I found it quite impressive when he said that the argument for making the change was that there was a need to improve
the quality of life in that housing" — [Official Report, 14 January 1980; Vol. 976, c. 1241.]
in other words, council housing. He seemed to imply that an improvement in the quality of life would result merely from a change of ownership, a change of tenure, a change from the landlord-tenant relationship. We could spend a lot of time arguing about that. I assure him, however, that that is not the problem of the quality of life in many of the towns that I represent. The quality of life there is determined more by the lack of a job or the social problems that are involved in some of the housing schemes. I am talking only about my area now. Change of tenure does not solve any of the major social problems.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) will recollect when I was an opponent of his in earlier elections. Some housing in his constituency, particularly in the Easterhouse area, has since been rendered habitable. Part of the reason for that lies in the funds that are now being released by council house sales. These can be spent on substandard housing of that nature. That is what this policy means.
I do not want to be offensive but does the hon. Gentleman think that I do not know what is going on in my constituency?
I made the point to the Secretary of State about the quality of life and it is well accepted that the solution is not just that every tenant should have an automatic right to buy his council house.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) has now been elevated by the reading of his speeches being made obligatory. He also made a speech in that debate but I do not think that he was up to form because, strangely, he made not one reference to the Labour-controlled Lothian regional council, and even though it was about housing I found that surprising. However, referring to my right hon. Friend the Member for Govan who had suggested that the Bill would drastically reduce the powers of housing authorities, he said:
My answer is, thank goodness. It is only by reducing the powers of housing authorities, local authorities and executives that one can increase individual rights and freedoms." — [Official Report, 14 January 1980; Vol. 976, c. 1277.]
That is a commendable philosophical approach and we are all in favour of increasing the rights of individual citizens. However, like everything else, one can only increase the rights of art individual or group in a
community at the expense of another individual or group. The vexed question of selling council houses is not the simple straightforward ideological proposition that Conservative Members suggest.
The hon. Gentleman's job in dealing with housing authorities is not made easier by his record of hostility to local authorities as shown in such comments. Therefore, I see no justification in continuing the policy of giving further discounts for the sale of council houses. We shall deal with that in more detail in Committee, but the Secretary of State referred to it. Someone who now qualifies for the maximum discount could, on a house worth £20,000 such as those which exist in the better parts of my constituency, receive an additional bonus of £2,000. I can find no logical justification for that. I see no practical reason why that increase in the discount is required. What is its purpose? Is it to sell more houses? Anybody who thought about it would not have been put off because for almost three years the maximum discount, as we said at the time, has been the bargain of the century. There is no big argument for this further discount.
It is a well-known secret, for which we make no apology, that Labour-controlled authorities do not agree with the policy and they are legitimately entitled to exercise their discretion. I confess that there should be a compromise, but that is only my view and we shall discuss that in Committee.
I am delighted that the Secretary of State has said, for whatever reason, that he will take into account the views of hon. Members on repairs. I accept that in good faith. It is coming to a sad pass if we cannot accept the word of the Secretary of State for Scotland of whatever party. Therefore, I accept that he will have genuine discussions with all concerned and take the views of hon. Members into account. However, I beg him to extend that to dropping the whole idea if necessary.
I concede right away that there is a problem. There is no authority in Scotland that I know of whose tenants do not complain about the delay in getting repairs done. I wish that it was as simple as the hon. Member for Stirling seemed to suggest. No two housing authorities in Scotland operate in the same way. Some authorities will not repair broken windows or sashes or replace washers in taps. I am sure that the Minister with responsibility for housing will be fair enough to concede that even the smart Alecs of the business world who were advising us a few minutes ago would, if they sat down to make the comparisons, find it almost impossible to do so because of the difficulty of comparing like with like. I am sure that if the Minister is dispassionate and for once forgets about making propaganda points he will concede the enormous difficulty of trying to measure the performance of one authority against another on anything, never mind housing repairs, which is probably the most difficult and complicated problem facing every authority. It is not just peculiar to Labour-controlled authorities. The experience is shared by every authority in Scotland. Therefore, we need to give the matter more thought and study, and we need to have more evidence of the problems. We need to know whether the conditions of the new leases that are part of the tenants' rights legislation have been fulfilled. I understand that Glasgow has not come up to scratch in the time scale that was expected of authorities. It is my experience that there are enormous difficulties in getting tenants to accept change because it is usually an attempt to save money. It is not always to improve the service.
I do not care what Labour party policy is on this matter. The Labour party has difficult people as well as the Conservatives. They may have some cranky ideas. The inference seems to be that if in some English authorities a job can be done for half the price even though there is a fixed rate, that is a profit. I consider that is almost fraud. Therefore, I hope that we will not get cowboys——
There are numerous examples in a variety of services where local authorities have been able to make savings of more than half to the benefit of ratepayers and tenants. To suggest that it is fraud is absurd. The fraud is on the ratepayers and tenants when the system is not subject to competition.
That is amateurish jargon. If we are looking for value for money it does not matter whether it is provided by private or public enterprise. I am saying only that I want some examination made of the consequences of the proposals. I accept in good faith that the Secretary of State wants to examine all pros and cons. As he readily admitted, there are snags. Could the system disadvantage people such as the elderly who cannot use it? An hon. Member who represents a constituency such as mine has not only the militants to contend with but people who deliberately misinterpret what I say. I have more inadequate constituents than ony other hon. Member. Therefore, I know that some are completely incapable of handling such a sophisticated mechanism as this. That is not a criticism of people. I hope that I have some kind of understanding of the people that I am sent here to represent. I have a better knowledge of some of the real problems that people face than some Conservative Members.
I should like to see some kind of pilot scheme or examination. We want to improve the service to the customer as economically as possible consistent with good housing. I beg the Conservative Front Bench in particular not to give in to the ideology that believes that if everything is privatised all the problems will be solved. I hope that we shall have a most constructive Committee stage and, in spite of the threats of my right hon. Friend the Member for Govan, I look forward to serving on it.
As I made clear in my maiden speech some months ago, I welcome any measure which promotes and encourages home ownership. One of the most significant achievements of my party in government after 1979 was the granting to every tenant of the right to buy his home. History will show that that was a profound advance in changing social attitudes and encouraging personal responsibility and self-reliance among the citizens of Scotland.
From the figures which have been disclosed about council house sales, it appears that there has been more enthusiasm to buy council homes south of the border than there has been in Scotland. That is hardly surprising since Scotland has for far too long suffered from an unrealistically lower level of owner occupation than England, or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) said, most iron curtain countries as well, and attitudes up to now have reflected that.
Bulgaria has 82 per cent. home ownership while Scotland has 35 per cent. I am not interested in emulating the example of some inferior country. I am interested in promoting home ownership on as wide a scale as possible.
The attitudes reflected by the low levels of owner-occupation have been made no easier by the concerted campaign by the Labour party in this House — in opposing the Tenants' Rights, Etc. Bill originally—and in Scotland at large. The problem has been the concerted opposition by the Labour party to the principle of home ownership and the sale of council houses.
It is perhaps all the more remarkable that so much progress has been made in Scotland. The people there will view with dismay the statement by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) that the Labour party opposes the Bill in principle, but that dismay will be tinged with relief in that Labour has no expectation of forming a Government so the right to buy will exist.
The results of our policy are clear for all to see and it surprises me that Labour Members, campaigning in their constituencies in recent months, have not seen them. Many tenants have realised their ambition to own their own homes and they are rightly proud of their status as home owners. The improvements which they have made to their homes are clear to see, enhancing not only their properties but the quality of the whole neighbourhood in which they live.
Contrary to the view of the right hon. Member for Govan, in my constituency house sales have taken place in all areas and for all types of properties, not in just the so-called desirable areas. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) must know of the success of the Easterhouse homesteaders scheme, which confirms clearly the desire among a large section of the population for home ownership.
In the two districts which I represent there has been an encouraging response to the sale of council homes. Indeed, Bearsden has the highest level of home purchases in Strathclyde.
No. I am speaking of my personal experience in my constituency.
Strathkelvin has had the fourth highest level of council house sales of all the 19 districts in Strathclyde. The Strathkelvin achievement is significant because it was done in the face of the opposition of the local Labour party, which described the sale of council houses as the crime of the century. It is a matter of great pleasure to me that I have many hundreds who are guilty of that crime.
No, I will not give way.
The Secretary of State has been well aware of the way in which tenants have spoken of their hope that this policy would continue. Indeed, they knew that their right to buy their homes was safe under a Conservative Government. Labour Members might care to reflect on the fact that the 250,000 voters who deserted them at the last election compared with 1979 might have borne in mind Labour's intractable hostility to the sale of council homes.
I will not give way.
As my right hon. Friend said, the Building Societies Association's survey showed that there was a widespread desire for the right of tenants to buy their council homes. I know tenants who have been waiting for this legislation and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his speed in bringing forward the Bill, so satisfying the commitment which we made in our manifesto.
It is reasonable and justifiable to offer a larger discount to a tenant who has occupied his home for 20 to 30 years. Tenants who fall into that category are usually well into the later part of their working lives, when it is less easy to obtain a mortgage and they have fewer years of working life left over which to spread the acquisition cost of a property. They will be glad to have something to show for the years of paying rent.
I am also glad that children who succeed to a tenancy will now have the right to have the time that they spent in that home over the age of 16 acknowledged in calculating the level of discount. It is far more satisfactory that that category of buyer should have the right, rather than that it should be at the discretion of a local authority. I welcome the additional amendment which my right hon. Friend disclosed reducing the qualifying period of tenancy to two years for the right to buy. That is worthwhile and will be widely welcomed.
I support the Bill because anything which stimulates council house sales must guarantee more funds for other housing needs. I hope that it will be possible for the net proceeds to be applied for sheltered housing needs. I make no apology for raising the point because my constituency is not well served with sheltered housing properties, and the age profile of my constituents is such that there will be an increasingly pressing need for sheltered housing in the next 10 years.
In a parliamentary reply last July, the Minister for Housing and Construction said that the average time taken to process an application for the purchase of a council house was 11½ months compared with five and a half months for a new town. That seems an unreasonably long time and I hope that he will try to speed up the processing of applications, so removing from applicants the anxiety and worry of a lengthy wait to find out whether their applications have been successful.
As the Secretary of State for Scotland said. 350,000 people are eligible to benefit from the Bill. I hope that they will take from this legislation the Government's green light to proceed with their applications to buy.
I do not share the faith in this measure which has been expressed by Conservative Members or by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), although he indicated opposition to much of the Bill.
It seems that there has been no proper consultation, and the Secretary of State's speech was empty of any real indication of how the repair system will operate. I regard the way in which the Scottish Office has produced the measure — with amendments on Second Reading — as nothing short of sloppy and half-baked. The Bill shows that the Government are not following a coherent housing policy.
Much has been said of the success of the Government's policy in relation to sales, but although 40,000 council houses have been sold, that is out of a total of over 1 million, which means that a vast number of houses in the public sector have not been, and are not likely to be, sold. Indeed, the problems relating to housing in Scotland, by and large affecting ordinary families, arise from the failure of the Government to give sufficient housing support grant to deal with the problems which those folk face. As the right hon. Member for Govan said, Dundee does not receive the housing support grant that it requires. I see day by day and week by week many of the difficulties with which tenants have to cope in trying to get repairs carried out and over modernisation. These difficulties have to be slung to one side because of the lack of finance from the Government.
The Government admit in the Bill, in effect, that there are many people who are willing to buy their houses who do not need the financial incentive that is being made available by increasing the maximum discount from 50 to 60 per cent. That suggests to me that the Government are throwing away public money and not even fulfilling their own policy. I should like to see a more sensible approach by the Government that would provide additional aid for the refurbishment of unlettable properties. Alas, examples of such properties are to be found in many areas. These properties should then be put up for sale in a state that would make them much more attractive. The Government must broaden the approach that they have in mind for the disposal of council houses and ensure that it encompasses a wider area.
For example, the population of Glasgow regard only about 20 per cent. of the housing stock as desirable. In Dundee, East about 350 houses within the Skarne housing development are empty, and more become empty with every day that passes. It will result either in disposal or demolition and I fear that the demolition contractors will be going into that development very soon.
The Government have given no specific help to authorities which have barrack-type properties in their areas. These properties were erected in a fit of enthusiasm in the 1960s by Labour local authorities with the help, assistance and encouragement of the Government. The Government should be well aware of the problems that attach to multi-blocks such as Bucklemaker court and Butterburn court, which have been found to be unsafe. They are being virtually rebuilt while the tenants continue to occupy their homes. The paltry compensation of £200 per household that is being offered by the district council cannot meet any of the health problems that may well arise and the difficulties that are caused by the operation of drills and by hoists taking bricks to the uppermost levels of the blocks. However, the Government have not come forward with any offer of assistance. The cost to the Dundee district council of remedial works to make the properties safe will amount to several million pounds. The Government should take account of these special cases. The Bill is silent in that respect and there is no evidence of a coherent housing policy.
I suggest to the Government that they think again about their decision to cancel repair grants. The manner in which the Government have acted leads me to suspect that an order has come through from the Treasury. The way in which it has been implemented has led to chaos and there will be difficulties throughout the country. Applications have already been frozen in Dundee. People do not know where they stand and the telephone lines that are used to deal with the grants have been occupied solidly for days following the Government's announcement. Such a scheme cannot be choked off in such a short period, especially when account is taken of the volume of applications.
If the Government considered it necessary to cut back the scheme, they should have given at least a year's notice. They should have been aware of the difficulties that would ensue. Attention has rightly been drawn to the impact which the decision will have upon small building firms. How can they plan ahead when a scheme which they hoped would continue for another year is terminated without notice? I remember the criticism of a Labour Government a few years ago when they stopped the regional employment premium without notice. If that criticism could be made of that Government, the present Government should show some sensitivity over the repairs grant.
The repairs grant scheme is open to abuse and I would have been willing to consider suggestions for change. In my constituency I have come across people who have benefited from the 90 per cent. grant and substantial changes to their properties, but who could well have afforded to undertake those repairs themselves. They would have enjoyed the capital benefit of having an improved house. By contrast, I have come across people who have a house with a rateable value of only £10, £5 or even £1 above the cut-off point. As a result, they have been able to obtain no benefit under the scheme. Some of these people may not have any funds to enable them to carry out their own repairs.
The present scheme is unfair and changes should have been announced. I should not have objected to means-testing to ensure that those who could afford to repair their own properties should go ahead and do so. Unfortunately, the Government have chosen to take simple but drastic action by reducing the grant from 90 to 50 per cent. The expenditure that will be saved could have been spread more widely and to greater effect.
I am not convinced that the Government's proposals for repairs will work. We have not been given the details of what the Government have in mind, and in all courtesy we were entitled to have them. The scheme looks well on the surface, but I do not think that it will be capable of effective implementation. I accept that there is great dissatisfaction with repairs, or lack of repairs. In common with many other hon. Members, I become uptight about the way in which folk have not been able to get necessary repairs carried out—for example, the securing of doors and the sealing of windows in the depths of winter. They are entitled to that service. They pay their rent, and no housing authority has an excuse for refusing to carry out its work with a degree of efficiency. However, there are practical problems and I shall rehearse them quickly.
If a local authority does not receive any housing support grant and has fairly low capital reserves, will the Government pick up the tab for any repairs that are carried out by the tenant under the Bill? Where will the money come from? It is all very well for the Government to consider repairs to be, for example, the replacement of a door or the reglazing of a window, but what happens if an entire window frame is rotten and if every house in a development has rotten windows? That will be a modernisation programme and it will be a big job. The tenants may say, "Draughts are whistling through these windows and we shall get them repaired." If they do that, where will the money come from?
If a repair is necessary and it is carried out privately by the tenant, and the local authority quibbles over the necessity of the repair or the extent of it, who will arbitrate? Once a repair has been done, where is the evidence? If a claim is taken to the sheriff, for example, it will be necessary to corroborate the extent of the repair and to value it to ensure that the local authority will not pay too much for it. We all know that there are cowboy operators in the building trade. If the tenant goes to the sheriff because of non-payment by the local authority, will legal aid be granted to enable his case to be properly presented? What procedure is intended? Will it be a simple appearance before the sheriff, when the sheriff will deal with the matter almost as an arbiter, or will the lawyers be trotted out, to the benefit of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)? Being a retired lawyer, I can make that allegation.
How will costs be assessed? The Bill talks about
not exceeding the costs that would have been incurred by the landlord".—
What standard will be applied? If the repairs are carried out by the tenant, will the local authority be required to provide a list of authorised building contractors? I have had complaints that work carried out under repair grants is not done properly. One of my constituents was virtually driven into hospital because of the problem of getting the work done under the repair grant scheme. The tenants should be protected.
Subsection (3)(b) of the proposed new section states that
the obligations of the landlord in respect of repairs to the dwelling-house shall cease to apply for such period and to such extent as may be determined by or under the scheme.
I understand what that means in relation to a repair that has been carried out, but what happens if the repair is inadequate and the house is not in a fit state for occupation because it is not windproof or watertight? Will the local authority be under an obligation to repair that house and do the remedial work because of its other common law obligations to keep the house windproof and watertight? I hope that the Secretary of State will address himself to that practical problem.
It is a pity that in the Bill the Scottish Office has not seen fit to address itself to the difficulties facing long leaseholders, such as the ones at Seafield estates, who have been deprived of their houses because there is no way, under the present law, to convert the long leasehold into proper ownership.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has rushed to the defence of Seafield estates in view of the information that I have. However, at one time there was legislation on the statute book to deal with long leaseholds. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least support that proposition.
The Bill is inadequate and badly prepared. The issues have not been thought out and, at the least, the Government should reconsider it. If they do not do so, for reasons of practicability, if nothing else, my right hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) and I will vote against it.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) drew attention, as he often does, to the problems in the city of Dundee. I am sure that he will agree that many of them are brought about by the administration in the city.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the problem of the lack of funds for the housing authorities. I hope that he agrees that a substantial part of the problem is of their own making. The remedy lies in their own hands. They could easily increase the rents. If they did so, there would be an injection of substantial funds both from the Government and from the people living in the houses.
However, people may say, "What about the unemployed and those on low incomes?" They will realise that the rents of the unemployed and those on low incomes are paid in full or substantially through Government funds. In Perth and Kinross district, the adjacent authority, where what is judged to be an economic rent is charged, more than 50 per cent. of the tenants receive funds from the taxpayer that pay either in full or substantially the rent charged. There is no shortage of prospective tenants for council houses in Perth and Kinross district or of prospective purchasers of council houses. Many lessons can be learnt from that.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is frustrated that his usual sparring partner, the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) is not present to defend his local authority. Does he accept that properties such as the Skarne development and the multi-storey blocks, where substantial remedial work needs to be done, present a specific case for the Government to deal with? Does he accept that the housing problems in Dundee are much greater than those in Perth?
The hon. Gentleman again shows his ignorance of the true situation. In percentage terms, the city of Perth has problems similar to those in Dundee. Unfortunately, we have ghetto areas. They exist whether one likes it or not, and I accept that something has to be done about them. I shall come to that later as I feel that we often concentrate on the wrong sectors when we talk about council houses.
I welcome the Bill. One of the Acts that we passed in the previous Parliament, which gave me satisfaction, was the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Act 1980. I was pleased to play a small part in getting it on the statute book. If I have any reservation about the working of the Act—and I do—it is that Labour councils that opposed the sale were given too much rope and time before they were made to acquiesce in the demands by their tenants to the right that Parliament had given them to purchase the homes in which they lived. We were too soft with those Labour councils.
We in the Conservative party can be proud that we gave so many people in Scotland the chance to become owner-occupiers. Between September 1980 and March 1983 nearly 30,000 families bought their public sector homes in Scotland. Whatever one's political views, one must accept that those 30,000 people have firmer roots than before. They now see themselves as having a stake in the community in which they live. I am also pleased that there are about 15,000 outstanding applications. I wish that there were 30,000 or 50,000.
However, it must be wrong for it to take nearly 12 months to process the sale of a council house, when the SSHA can do it in nine months, which is still too long, and the new town corporations can do it in five and a half months.
The new town corporations have always sold some of their houses. That has always been the practice. No provision for staffing or anything else was given to the district councils to deal with the problem of council house sales.
The hon. Gentleman's intervention is remarkable. He will understand why when he reads the report of this debate tomorrow. He says that, because the new towns were experienced in the sale of houses, they were able to process applications for ownership more quickly and that local authorities, with all their highly paid specialist staff, were incapable of producing in three years the machinery to reduce the waiting time. If ever there were a condemnation and indictment of local authorities, the hon. Gentleman has just made it.
The level of owner-occupation in Scotland is still far too low. If we seriously want to deal with the ghastly human relations and environmental problems in many of Scotland's housing estates, we must acknowledge that individual accountability and responsibility can be substantially improved by owner-occupation.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) often brings sanity to our debates. He has an opinion of his own and does not simply mouth the policy that he believes will be acceptable to his Front Bench. I do not always agree with my Front Bench and have voted against it more often than some Opposition Members have voted against theirs.
The hon. Member for Provan has vast experience of local government and central Government matters and housing. He should go outside his own parish and see what has happened elsewhere. That is the art of the possible which is all that we can hope for. If the hon. Gentleman examined areas in which council house sales had been the pattern for some time he would find that many of the environmental problems on some of the down-market estates have vanished. Accountability and responsibility are potent factors which affect the way in which people behave.
Ownership, whether it be of a car or of a house, alters people's perception of property. That perception is quite different if the property belongs to someone else. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the case, and whatever the differences of policy, if, as I believe they do, Opposition Members care deeply about problems of human relations, they must acknowledge that there must be common ground between them and the Conservatives. We should agree that, if there is a means of improving the environment that works at an acceptable cost to the taxpayer, we should pursue it more vigorously. The hon. Member for Provan should bring his experience to bear. If he is short of places to visit, I can supply him with a list of addresses.
I boast that I have probably tramped round more dirty back courts and deprived areas in Scotland than any other hon. Member. I include one place in Perth near Muirton park where, on the initiative of the district council, unbreakable glass had been installed. Unfortunately, vandals found that they could burn it. Therefore, I know a wee bit about what happens outside Glasgow.
The hon. Gentleman visited the area some time ago and there have been substantial changes. That is my point.
The owner-occupier has all the incentives to keep his property — including the garden — in good condition. That is rarely the case in rented property. Moreover, the owner-occupier has all the incentives to ensure that public property adjacent to his is not vandalised. All the evidence supports that view. I have never understood why that aspect of the sale of council houses to those who occupy them has been opposed by Opposition Members. They have obviously not studied the case in detail. I have never advocated the financial argument in favour of the sale of council houses on the grounds that such sales will save resources. The real argument for selling council houses lies in what accountability and responsibility do for the purchasers. The main reason for selling public sector housing is to give more people in Scotland a chance to purchase their own homes. The Tory party is committed to a property-owning democracy. That is one of the reasons why I am so proud to be a Conservative.
Solely the improvement in the environment and in human relations that goes hand in hand with owner-occupation justifies the sale of council properties to sitting tenants. It is extremely sad that, compared with Scotland, in Bulgaria 82 per cent., in Yugoslavia 71 per cent., in Hungary 66 per cent. and in Poland 50 per cent. of the population own their own homes and that we are so far behind in the owner-occupier league.
As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman equates home ownership with almost every social virtue. May we assume that he is an enormous admirer of every other social aspect of Bulgaria?
I was about to mention the United States, which would have completely destroyed the hon. Gentleman's argument. I am a pragmatic politician. I examine what has been achieved elsewhere. That is the art of the possible. I have never believed that we should indulge in pursuing theories that cannot be seen to work. I have spent a lifetime listening to people who theorise about what should be done and met many who make a complete muck of the situation. The difference between being theoretical and practical is that a practical person adapts and alters policy in the light of experience. Therein lies a message for the Labour party.
If 82 per cent. of Bulgarians own their own homes and that is a mark of respectability and an effective social system, does the hon. Gentleman admire Bulgaria in other ways or has something gone wrong?
I have probably spent much more time behind the iron curtain than the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). I am happy to discuss trading and the problems of equality behind the iron curtain if that is what he wants. However, this is not the time or place to do so. The hon. Gentleman would complain if I never found anything to applaud in a Communist or pseudo-Communist country. Many countries that are run on the principles of quite different political ideologies can teach us something. Surely learning is not beneath Britain, the home of democracy. We examine what others do and try to improve on their performance.
Could it be that the god-like attitude of some councils and some housing officials about the allocation of houses and the diminishing desire of the Labour party to cancel all council house sales—that was once its proud boast— has brought about fundamental changes? I believe that they have. British people now want to own their council houses so much that it is clear that the Labour party is pursuing the wrong policy. I can find something to applaud in Bulgaria. The Labour party should realise that it, too, can learn.
The hostility of local authorities to council house sales was a factor—some would say a major factor—in the decline of support for the Labour party in the June general election. For example, the December 1982 letter issued by the Labour-controlled Glasgow district council to tenants whose houses required modernisation asked them to forgo their right to buy for 10 years and said that if they did not comply they would be forced to pay the council a proportion of the modernisation costs.
The impact of that type of policy will be seen in future elections as, indeed, will the impact of the views of Opposition Members to this Bill. Labour Members may laugh and jest, but I remind them that in my constituency the Labour party got what can only be described as a derisory vote. No one can ever say that at any time have I tried to accommodate the Opposition's views in my approach, either during the election or in the period before it.
I believe that Scottish tenants will welcome clause 1 and the provision to increase the discount by 1 per cent. a year for those who have been tenants for between 20 and 30 years, taking the maximum discount from 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. The Scottish Office estimates that between 350,000 and 400,000 local authority tenants stand to benefit from these increased discounts. That is a substantial number of people. Given that in many of those houses there will be more than one voter, the Labour party should think carefully before it rejects the Bill and this clause.
The right to repair has properly exercised the minds of several hon. Members. The hon. Member for Dundee, East made a particularly good contribution in this regard, because I believe that we are treading in areas that could present problems.
It is right to entitle tenants to carry our repairs which the landlord will not do although he has an obligation. Every hon. Member knows that people come to see Members of Parliament only when they have problems or wish to complain. They never tell us how good the local authority is, but they will tell us how ghastly it is and what the problems are. I do not receive letters on the scale of those received by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), but he is not the only hon. Member who gets such correspondence. Many hon. Members have had letters from tenants complaining about the lack of repairs. It is, therefore, right that tenants should carry out repairs themselves. However, we must examine this proposal carefully in Committee.
We must ensure that when the Bill is passed, as it will be, the publicity is sufficient and adequate to ensure that there are no doubts among either the councils or the tenants. There was an element of doubt after we passed the last Act, and it was some time before we saw real benefits.
I was concerned when I read the letter which we all received from the Scottish Tenants Association, because it touched on areas that could present problems. The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) doubted whether the right to carry out repairs could be enforced. That is perhaps something on which we can all agree. If we can, we shall begin to make progress.
It is interesting to compare local authority sales on Tayside. In Perth and Kinross 8·8 per cent. of the housing stock has either been sold or is in the process of being sold. In Angus district, the other authority in my constituency, the figure is 6·2 per cent., and the city of Dundee, whose records, not surprisingly, are incomplete, has sold only 1·4 per cent. That should leave no one in any doubt about how local authorities behave towards sales and how they acquiesce in the law.
This is the only place where the law can be changed; it cannot be done at local authority level. Yet to listen to some local councillors and even some Labour Members one would think that local councils could make the law. Their job is to administer it. The law is made in this House and the other place. If Labour Members are sensible and want the law to be changed, they should start to encourage the sale of council houses so that they are seen to be the promoters of such a policy. By doing so, they may regain some of the votes lost during the election.
For too long Scotland has spent too much of the nation's resources and effort on massive schemes that have produced ghastly problems. It is right and proper now to concentrate the resources available on the elderly, the disabled and others with specialist needs. However, there is a responsibility on the Government to look carefully and in detail at how they can remove the damp and condensation that afflict much of the local government housing stock in Scotland.
It is no good saying, "Yes, it is desirable to do such things." I should like to see the reactivation of the report of the Select Committee, whose work was of value. It spent much time looking at these matters and in some way its report should be reactivated. If resources become available, I strongly recommend to my right hon. Friend that they should be allocated to the removal of damp and condensation, not to other grandiose schemes which may look great——
Clause 2 is very good, and I intended to skim over it. There are things in it on which I should like to speak, but my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) and other hon. Members are still waiting to intervene, and I have already taken up my allotted time.
My message to Labour Members is that if you oppose the Bill, as I understand you will——
My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course you do not get involved. Indeed, I remember with fondness the days when you did get involved—the voice of sanity in our employment debates.
Labour Members should think carefully before supporting the policy as outlined by their Front Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Govan, otherwise the many votes lost at the last general election will be doubled at the next.
I shall not attempt to follow the arguments of the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), because such a task would defy the collective talents of Jung, Freud and R. D. Laing. However, one point of interest—and it is one to which all politicians should pay attention — was his correlation between home ownership in Bulgaria and the results of general elections. I have made a study of Bulgarian election results and I have discovered that the Government there have been returned 100 per cent. at every election since 1947. Therefore, we shall take account of what the hon. Gentleman said about that.
I fear that you missed something rather good, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) told us that he gets 300 letters every week from council house tenants in his constituency. I worked out that he has only 24 weeks to go until every council house tenant in Stirling has written to him. I am sure that it will come as a great relief to him and to his secretary when that has happened.
I was interested in what the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst)—who I am sure has joined the hon. Member for Stirling in the Dining Room—had to say about the success rate of selling houses in Bearsden. I had the honour of representing Bearsden in this House, as did many of my Labour predecessors, because until now Bearsden has had a Tory Member for only six months. The present hon. Member has been in office for only three months. One could drive round Bearsden, although it is not something that I would recommend, until one was blue in the face and not sight a council house. However, the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden proudly told us how many houses the council had sold. I checked, and I found that it had sold five houses in the last quarter recorded in the statistics of the Scottish Office. If that is something to shout about, the hon. Gentleman does not have much to talk about here.
Let me make it clear at the beginning that I advise the Scottish branch of the Institute of Housing. All the arguments about the sale of council houses have been well presented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan). Clause 1 will increase sales and reduce rent income to the authorities. That has serious consequences for the revenue budgets, which will not be wholly compensated for by increased capital receipts, thereby leading to higher rate contributions to housing revenue account.
How ludicrous that is when one considers that this legislation forces the local authorities to do things which they did not originally intend or which it was not their policy to do—and councils are elected in their own right. The Government are forcing on councils financial provisions which are inconsistent with any good commercial practice. No private housing organisation could cope with the things being asked of the local authorities. That is a point to which the Conservative party would do well to address itself.
It is regrettable that the regulations referred to in clause 2 have not been brought before the House in at least draft form. The Secretary of State seemed to be suggesting that it would be wrong to bring forward the regulations in their totality before he had heard the opinions and the collective wisdom of the House and the Standing Committee. However, there are already draft regulations for England and Wales and we could have had draft regulations before us today so that the debate about clause 2 would not take place in a vacuum, which is what is happening. We are having to relate our comments to what is happening in England and Wales. I must therefore assume that the Government will follow the pattern in England and Wales, which is what they usually do. We are being asked to write a blank cheque and all will be revealed to us later.
Such a course will result in two things. The tenants will undertake their own repairs and all the cowboy firms in the building industry — I say with respect to those hon. Members who have connections with the building industry that the industry has produced its share of cowboys— and every dubious fly-by-night building contractor or jobber will be in on the act. They will not provide the kind of service that we get from the much-maligned direct labour organisations, or provide a 24-hour service. Try calling some of these people out and one will find that although they tout for business and put their addresses in the yellow pages, one cannot find them when one has a job that requires action.
Clause 2 is a thinly disguised attack on direct labour organisations. Some Conservative Back Benchers are quite plain about where they stand on this. The difference between direct labour organisations and the private builder is that the former are accountable to elected representatives. In my constituency, if repairs are not carried out the DLO hears from me, and I know that my hon. Friends do the same for their constituents. In DLOs, repairs are programmed and determined on a basis of priority. This is related to financial management, and that financial management will be seriously eroded if we have the so-called right to repairs.
The real problem will arise over giving instructions for repairs, which will be most apparent on the issue of dampness. We heard about dampness from the hon. Member for Tayside, North, and I and all of my colleagues have had experience of a tenant telling us that his house was damp, while the council told us that it was suffering from condensation. I am usually on the side of those who say that the house is damp. A tenant may decide to bring in a contractor for a major repair aimed at curing dampness, and an argument could result over the nature of the problem and its resolution. As the Bill stands, such an argument will have to go before the sheriff for adjudication. This cannot be a formula for good tenant-authority relations.
If a house has dampness caused by condensation and the remedy involves cavity wall insulation and the installation of central heating, is it in order for the tenant to instruct the work to be charged to the local authority as long as the cost is not more than it would be if the local authority did the work? I should like the Minister's view on that, as there is considerable interest among the housing managers who have talked to me about this. They want to know exactly what is the Government's position. Presumably, tenants will want to know what costs the local authority will meet before giving instructions for the work to be done. This represents a considerable burden for local authorities, as jobbing works are seldom done, or not done, on the basis of individual job costs.
There is also the question of the quality control of materials and workmanship, and this is certainly a problem with private contractors. Part of any additional work will revolve round the every day decisions of local authorities. For example, the decision not to put in a bath may now be the subject of an appeal to the sheriff. Another issue which the local authority will need to consider is the liability for third party claims in respect of private contractors instructed by tenants and working on council property. We shall have to consider the health and safety at work responsibilities of local authorities in respect of a tenant's contractor working on local authority property.
A scheme similar to the one outlined in the Bill has operated in the London borough of Havering, about which I am surprised we have not heard. There is a considerable difference between a council introducing a voluntary scheme which can be controlled or abandoned as it sees fit, and a statutory scheme which by its nature is permanent and cannot truly account for local circumstances. No doubt we shall find out something more about all that when the Minister replies to the debate.
I hope that the Minister will say something about the role of the sheriff. The Scottish branch of the Institute of Housing is far from happy with that matter and has made representations to me. It feels that the arguments of the parties concerned should be considered in another forum. My right hon. Friend the Member for Govan suggested that. In Committee the Opposition will table amendments to take away that adjudication from the sheriff and place it with a more appropriate body. Someone could be nominated by a responsible body within the building profession, or an independent person could be appointed by the housing authorities or by COSLA. Referring the matter to a sheriff is not conducive to good tenant-local authority relations. Reference to the law in such a matter is no answer. It is a practical question about building, rather than legal liability. I hope that we can shift it out of the hands of the lawyer.
In two clauses the Bill manages to express the prejudices and ill-founded ideological nonsenses currently in vogue in the Tory party, and especially in the remnants of the Tory party in Scotland. The so-called rights which the Bill contains are bogus. It does not serve the aims of good housing management. It reduces the number of houses available to let. It does not in any way deal with the real housing problems facing Scotland today.
The Bill undermines those authorities which provide a good repair service, and it gives preference to the fag end of the building industry. The Bill does not merit the support of the House.
By the time the debate ends, we shall have spoken for four and a quarter hours on a three-clause Bill. It is no wonder that people wonder what we do in this place when we take so long to deal with such a short Bill.
I welcome the Bill because it increases the right-to-buy discount to 60 per cent. and gives older people the opportunity to end their days in a home that they can hand over to their children. I welcome the provision that gives children of tenants the opportunity to have the years that they spent with their parents taken into account.
I wish to refer specifically to clause 2. Much has been made of that clause. I agree with those hon. Members who said that it would have been more satisfactory had my right hon. Friend brought forward some form of draft regulations on how the scheme would operate. Not only is the tenant affected—the much-maligned small builder is also affected. He must lay out the cash to buy the goods to carry out the work. Invariably, those who have authorised the work do not pay for at least four weeks, and sometimes it is even longer. We must introduce a scheme that is satisfactory to both tenant and builder.
In many cases tenants can be cowboys. Having received the money from the local authority they do not pay the builder.
I refer especially to tenants in Dundee, West. A system must be evolved that provides security for the small builder so that he receives his money within a reasonable time. My right hon. Friend should consider including in the legislation a provision that the local authority will pay the money once the job has been approved.
No one has mentioned whether estimates must be provided for the work. Surely, some form of total estimate would be prepared by a recognised builder. I agree with several hon. Members that there should be a register of builders who should be members of the Scottish Building Employers Federation. We should then not have any cowboys operating in the business. Fortunately, we do not have many in Scotland, but I should not like those that exist to be encouraged. When the Minister considers these regulations, he should note that if local authorities are to be responsible they should have a register of contractors.
Problems may be caused if the work has not been carried out to the tenant's satisfaction. One or two hon. Members have said that there should be an avenue of arbitration other than to the sheriff. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) knows better than any other hon. Member about the time needed to place a case in the sheriff court. The hon. Member has spoken often in the House about the overburdened sheriff courts in Glasgow and elsewhere. If these cases were put before the sheriff court there would be further problems not just for tenants but for small business men.
I recommend that we use the Chartered Institute of Arbritrators or an organisation such as the Faculty of Architects and Surveyors Ltd. which could act much faster than the sheriff court.
After the 1968 storm in Glasgow, firms of surveyors were employed by the city corporation to check the builders' work. A similar system could apply in a dispute between a tenant and builder. The Minister should give that careful thought. It would be wrong to pass a regulation whereby the sheriff court determined answers.
This small Bill merits acceptance by the House. The main discussion has been about improvement grants which have nothing to do with the Bill. I do not object to the Opposition taking the opportunity to address themselves to that subject today. [Interruption.] To some degree I support the Opposition's comments.
As was correctly said by several Opposition Members, small builders have made plans for their contracts. If the contracts are suddenly taken away—as has happened— the contractors will be heading for disaster. In Scotland, 5,000 building trade operatives could be thrown out of work and a number of businesses made bankrupt. I should not like that to happen. I appeal to the Minister to look at this matter. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) just said, unless there is some assurance from the Minister that money will be forthcoming for these affairs, the local authorities will face serious problems. Banff and Buchan district council has no money for either private or public sector housing improvement grants. Will the Minister tell us where we shall get money to save businesses and people's jobs?
I welcome the Bill. I hope that it will have a satisfactory passage through the House. There are amendments to be made which will no doubt be presented in Committee. We look forward to them with interest. In the meantime, I commend my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend for bringing the Bill before the House.
The Liberal party has for many years supported the principle of selling council houses. It might be worth reminding hon. Members that we were selling council houses in Inverclyde long before the Government were elected. It might also be worth reminding the House that Inverclyde will shortly be returning to a Liberal administration which I am sure the good people of Inverclyde will welcome.
We are believers in local government. It appears to us that Conservative Members no longer are. The decision whether to sell council houses should ideally be taken by elected members of local authorities who know their local needs. That is the line that we have always advocated and preferred. The reason for that is not difficult to explain if one considers two examples. With a west of Scotland authority such as Inverclyde, where there is a high proportion of council tenants and an increasing demand by people to become home owners, it seems to make sense to transfer those council tenants to home ownership by direct sale. That is why we introduced that policy when we were first in control of that council many years ago. It proved popular at the time.
It is worth looking also at a different type of community where there is rapid growth and where there is no doubt that selling a large number of council houses within a short period affects the housing stock to the disadvantage of people in that area. That is why we always prefer that the decision should be taken by the directly elected local council.
I am not suggesting that. I am saying that if we believe in local democracy we should allow it to work. Over the past few years we have established that the Government do not believe in local democracy and are pursuing a series of policies that are designed to abolish it. Many Conservative councillors are beginning to say just that, including those in my area who believe that local government has a short future because of the Government's actions.
We believe that is wrong. That does not mean that we do not believe in the principle. People have the right to vote locally and to decide their priorities according to local needs. If one believes in democracy, one should believe in local democracy. What worries me about the Conservative party is that it seems to think that democracy is fine as long as that party is top of the heap. When it is not top of the heap, it seeks to take power to act against the wishes of the local community.
The representations that have been received by myself and other hon. Members have not been against the principle of increasing the discount from 50 to 60 per cent. If the Government wish to encourage discounted home ownership throughout the country, I am not sure that I would even take issue. However, I believe that the Government should be prepared to pay when a local authority finishes up out of pocket.
The Secretary of State suggested that the consequences of this legislation would be neither a gain nor a loss, at least in the short run. The Government would have a right at a later date to add more capital funds, whether they were a Labour, an alliance or a Conservative Government, if they wished to support additional council house building. In the short run that might be acceptable. If the Government are proved wrong in their forecast, and it does not result in a no gain, no loss position, but in a loss to the local council, I hope that they will make good that loss. We are worried that by introducing this increase in discount, which in many ways may seem acceptable and which is particularly attractive to those who are generally well housed and would benefit from it, resources may be taken from other housing priorities.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have questioned whether the Government have an overall housing policy or whether, as some outside observers may believe, they have, understandably, an enthusiasm for pursuing a policy which I do not deny is popular. However, to an extent, they have tunnel vision on this aspect and underestimate the need to provide for other forms of housing need. The hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) was keen to tell the House about his postbag, but what about the letters that we all receive from people who are trying to get a council house for the first time, or sheltered housing, or accommodation for the young, single homeless and for young couples trying to make a start? If the application reduces the funds available for such people, there will be understandable cause for concern. I hope that the Government will monitor the implications of their actions and will be prepared to compensate local authorities if their forecasts are wrong.
We have heard the list of organisations that provide public housing which the Secretary of State proposes to bring into the scheme, but it seems to be a dog's breakfast as to what is in and what is out. I urge the Minister to consider the scheme more thoroughly. If there is to be a scheme of public authority housing, it should be a fair and across-the-board scheme, and not one for some sorts of housing and not others operated on what appears to be an arbitrary basis.
As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) and others said, although the Government's decision to cut the housing repair grant is not a direct matter for the Bill, it is odd that the two come juxtaposed, and that the Government seek to withdraw money from one source and to require local authorities to give additional discounts within a week of each other.
The decision will pose considerable difficulties for many local authorities. I spoke today to Gordon district council. It has been overwhelmed with applications for housing improvement grants, which it has actively encouraged because the Government urged it to do so and guaranteed that it would get the money. It is three months behind in processing applications. At the council meeting next week it will have to impose a moratorium. If the Government believe that that will increase their popularity—and my constituents will want to understand how they can do that while insisting that local authorities discount council houses further—they should consider more seriously the implications of their actions.
We in the Liberal party do not oppose the principles of the Government's proposal or even the extension of the discount, but we suggest that if the Government have miscalculated, they should compensate the local authorities involved and take account of these other arguments. We seek the Government's assurances that they will act in good faith on that matter and not tell the House one thing now and, if it proves to be wrong, let local authorities ride it out. That would cause a loss of faith between local authorities and central Government.
Clause 2 is an enabling clause and is something of a pig in a poke. We are being asked to approve a clause that would enable the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations, without knowing what those regulations would be. Hon. Members would be right to say that they wished to have a good look at the regulations to see whether they are practicable before they endorse them fully. If we give a Second Reading to the Bill, it should be on the clear understanding that the Government will provide more details and will consult, as the Secretary of State said they will, to see whether such a scheme is workable and in the interests of tenants. We have all received representations from groups that are worried that they might be supporting new regulations which act against the interests of tenants. No Opposition Member would support regulations that had that effect, and we need an assurance that the objective is to increase tenants' rights, as the name of the Bill suggests, not to reduce them.
Some local authorities are worried about the implications of the regulations, including my local authority of Gordon and Tweeddale district council. They are worried because it is slightly odd that, when the Government are imposing such restraints on local government spending, they propose to introduce regulations that will loosen a local authority's control over its budget. If tenants are entitled to carry out repairs and to present the bill to the local authority, how can the local authority anticipate the volume of such claims? Will the Scottish Office say that it does not accept responsibility for the implications on local government funding if a local authority experiences a sudden increase in claims, which could cause considerable embarrassment? My colleagues wish to have an assurance from the Minister that, if that happens, he will not pull the rug from under the local authority and say, "Get on with it. We only introduced the regulations. The fact that they have proved so popular is your responsibility." The House would have more confidence in the Government if they were prepared to honour the implications, because they are opening up uncertain expenditure that, ultimately, central Government must be prepared to back.
I have set out the Liberal party's reservations about the Bill. We tabled an instruction which shows our concern that compensation should be paid to local authorities that are out of pocket. If we can have assurances from the Minister that that will be taken into account, my colleagues and I will support the Bill.
It is interesting that the Government are bringing forward changes in the succession of tenancy. They blame the need for that on the intransigence of Labour local authorities, but when the previous tenants' rights legislation was discussed in Committee the problems of tenancy were raised by the Opposition. Although the Government have made these changes, as they move down the path they will encounter more difficulties.
Although I may believe that the right to buy council houses is unfair, it is equally unfair that a woman who has looked after her elderly parents for 10 to 12 years before their death and who has been the main wage earner in their house should be discriminated against. If the law is unfair, it should be removed. We should not pick on women, and sometimes men, who have given up much of their social lives to look after elderly parents. However, what can the Government do about the succession to tenancy when, for many reasons, local authorities have different regulations about tenancies? In Glasgow, someone may take over a tenancy from a parent at the age of 18, if he lives in the house, not from his date of birth.
The Government must consider the entire matter, because there are many difficulties. If a tenant dies and leaves two daughters and a son, who will have the right to buy the house? No one would deny that the three people living in the house have an equal right to remain there, but there can be only one purchaser. That will create difficulties, because once the purchase is made no protection an be afforded to the remaining brothers or sisters in the home. A brother or sister could easily say to his or her relatives, "I am turning you out of the home because I am now the legal owner." These difficulties were pointed out two or three years ago, but the Government are looking only at a part of the problem that the sale of council houses has thrown up.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) that only the good housing stock has been bought in cities such as Glasgow and, indeed, throughout Scotland. I can go to the good areas —I detest using the phrase "good areas" because the vast majority of council tenants are decent. hard-working people; I am referring to the high demand areas—where people are buying their homes. It is easy to identify them because the tenants appear to go down to Dodge City, buy their own doors, take off the council doors and put up the new doors as a badge to show other people that they have bought their homes.
It is all very well for the Under-Secretary of State to say, "Hear, hear," but in other parts of Glasgow many thousands of people want to leave their council estates and go to the high demand areas which are being sold off. We owe something to those people. In the 1950s, when the new housing estates on the perimeter of Glasgow were built, those tenants were giving the city centre a breathing space because they were prepared to leave their own communities and go to the peripheral areas. Those people are now saying that they have served their apprenticeship and that, while there is good housing stock —some in the city centre and some on the perimeter—it is hard for them to get into those areas. They have been in those houses for 20 years and through no fault of their own, they cannot get out. The Government are reducing their chances of getting into those decent areas.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) has many happy memories of the Glasgow storm of 1968 because it made him a millionaire. The hon. Gentleman was a contractor and he made a killing out of the Glasgow storm. I do not have many happy memories of that storm because I was left homeless with one child and a pregnant wife. It took 12 months to get my repairs done, not because there was no money—the house was insured and the insurer was prepared to ensure that the repairs were done — but because no tradesmen were available in Glasgow. In 1968 inexperienced tradesmen were falling off roofs and being killed. Slater companies were going to the jobcentres and taking the first unemployed men available, as long as those men were prepared to say that they were slaters.
There is difficulty with repairs even at the moment. Many small contractors in the cities will not touch grant-aided repairs or re-roofing contracts because they say that the local authorities are far too slow in handing over the grants once the work is done. If that is the case, even if the Government give powers to tenants to get quotations and to get repairs done, the same contractors will say that they will not touch local government work because it takes too long for the money to be handed over. If this legislation is passed, the Government must ensure that the money is available. Local authorities certainly do not have that sort of finance.
Tenants often talk to me about rain penetration. Many of them live in multi-storey flats. Sometimes they live 22 storeys up. Indeed, as I have said before, I have 32-storey blocks in my constituency. In order to have a repair carried out, the tenant will have to find a contractor who is prepared to put cradles on the side of the building. He will have to contend with contractors who will not go above a certain height if the wind is at a certain speed. As a result, six or seven tradesmen could be standing idle doing nothing. Such a repair is terrible responsibility to ask any tenant to take on. Some tenants will go that far, and will present the local authority with a bill for several thousand pounds, for perhaps a very small repair. Therefore, the provisions are ill founded and should be reconsidered.
I was brought up in Glasgow, and a lot of renovation work has been carried out there. The renovation of houses provides work not only for direct labour organisations, but for both small and large private companies. The most important factor is that it gives people housing, and gets them back to the city centre and to the communities to which they once belonged. It also makes the city a more pleasant place in which to live. Therefore, the Under-Secretary of State should concentrate on the problems that the withdrawal of grant has caused and on the difficulties that every city throughout Scotland will face.
I warmly welcome the Bill, although not because of the way in which it has been drawn up. We are in the realms of legislation by regulation and that is almost unacceptable to the House. I shall want the House to see the draft of the regulations to be enacted after this tiny Bill has been passed. In that way I shall at least have some idea of how the tenants are to handle having repairs carried out.
I am constantly surprised that Labour Members should still oppose the sale of council houses.
Labour Members are often heard saying that they are opposed to the sale of council dwellings. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) was right to say that a new door on a house almost certainly meant that someone had bought his house. That is because the owner takes a pride in the property that he has just bought. During the last election campaign candidates who knocked on such doors found that before the inhabitants bought their houses they were strong supporters of the official Opposition, but that having bought them, they had changed parties. That was certainly the case in my constituency.
The canvass cards in my constituency show exactly the opposite, which shows that one cannot believe everything that one is told on the doorstep.
Another myth is that such provisions reduce the housing stock of the local authorities. That is a long-term prospect. It is unlikely that the occupant, whether he is purchasing the house or not, will vacate it. In fact, he will probably continue to live there for the next 30 to 40 years.
I have misgivings about clause 2. I wonder about some of the misgivings put before us by tenants' associations and Age Concern. I am glad that the Secretary of State when opening the debate clarified some matters, but I wish to put several others to him.
Many of the faults that I discover when I visit blocks of flats are structural. If such a structural fault exists in a block of flats, a person whose flat is affected by the fault will be unable to repair it on his own. If all the tenants in the block got together and arranged for a contractor to carry out the repairs, when the local authority received the estimate would the tenants be allowed to go ahead with the repairs, which might turn out to be large and expensive?
The same applies to dampness and condensation. The Select Committee examined the evidence from several Scottish cities where enormous damage was caused by condensation. Such damage could not be tackled by individual tenants. What would happen if several tenants got together and put forward a scheme to the local authority asking whether the tenants could repair the block?
On one estate in my constituency about 240 houses cannot use heating appliances because major repairs are required. If the tenants arranged for a private contractor to carry out the repairs, what would the local authority do when faced with an enormous bill? The same could apply to windows. What would happen if an entire street of council tenants were told that they would not be part of a modernisation scheme but then formed a tenants' association to repair their houses, received a discount from the contractor because of the quantity of work involved and produced an enormous bill for the council?
I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), will not give the impression that such legislation will open a Pandora's box and that all the repairs left undone can suddenly be carried out by tenants, simply by borrowing money, getting the repairs done and then getting the money back from the council. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the larger repair jobs would have to be inspected before permission could be given for them to be carried out. If that is the case, I foresee many councils saying that they have inspected the work and that the repair cannot be carried out simply because they do not have the money. We must not give the impression that while, on the one hand, we are trying to control Government and local authority expenditure, on the other hand all the money needed for repairs and maintenance will suddenly be available.
I support the Bill in principle, but many questions will have to be asked and, I hope, answered in Committee.
The Bill may be a little piece of legislation, but it is misleading in its intentions. The ethos of the Bill is based on the virtue of home ownership rather than the necessities of those who will continue to pay rent. No matter how many thousands of people have bought their homes, there are still more than 1 million tenants in Scotland. Despite what the Secretary of State describes as the overwhelmingly popular aspect of the sales, the Government now find it necessary to increase the maximum discount from 50 to 60 per cent. I can only conclude that that is to encourage a policy that is not going as well as has been suggested. I wonder how those who took the 50 per cent. maximum will feel about people coming along now and being entitled to the 60 per cent. maximum. However, I understand that it is only in trade union matters that the Government believe in retrospective legislation.
Nevertheless, if the Government are seriously concerned about Scottish tenants, I suggest that there should be a rent discount for those who have been rent payers for many years, man and boy or woman and girl. The Government's policies have been largely directed at jacking up rents throughout Scotland, well beyond the increases in the retail price index. Surely that is a matter to which the Government should direct more attention.
Also on the subject of sales policy, I wrote to the Minister about Orlit houses, in which structural faults were discovered after some houses were sold. I understand that the Scottish Special Housing Association has suggested the repurchase of those houses. It has always been my understanding of Scottish legal practice, although I am not a lawyer, that caveat emptor prevails and that the purchaser has to go through the necessary valuations and legal arrangements to make sure of what he is buying. It is important that the Minister should clarify the position in this respect. Ownership has its own commitments and responsibilities, and I think that the Government will find many owner-occupiers on their back in the coming weeks about the way they have handled improvement grants. If this is the measure of the Government's treatment of home owners, it shows a double standard.
When it comes to repairs, it is laudable in principle that the Government are trying to give tenants more authority over their own lives, their own tenancies, but as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) pointed out, will they be expected to produce two or three estimates, which is the accepted practice in most walks of life? Will a do-it-yourself tariff be prepared by the Scottish Office where certain things are listed, and other repairs, which might be regarded by tenants as essential, are excluded and, therefore, excluded from the reimbursement? Perhaps the Minister will comment on the discussions that he had with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and some of its misgivings, and practical suggestions, about amendments that might be made to this legislation.
Finally, the matter was well summed up in the Glasgow Evening Times of 15 October, which said:
The axe is poised over £2·5m worth of council house repairs in Glasgow.
It says that we are reaching a stage where
Among the work which may be shelved is gutter replacement, roof repairs and the eradication of woodworm and dry rot.
I know all about the poem
The boy stood on the burning deck",
but how can we accept a situation where tenants are not allowed repairs involving dry rot and woodworm? There is no way in which a local authority or a tenant can win the battle against those time factors. If the Government were to address themselves more to the overall shortage of cash resources facing Scottish local authorities they would do a better service to the tenants of Scotland.
The Bill has a rather dishonest, open cheque approach. I fear that local authorities will be inundated with repair bills from tenants and will then be faced with the same cutbacks in financial support from the Government that have been experienced within the past week over the improvement grants.
The adjectives that come to mind when describing the Bill are "depressing" and "inadequate". The Bill completely fails to measure up to the magnitude of the housing crisis in Scotland. It gives us no hope, no appreciation of the reality of circumstances, and no inspiration. The only thing that I can say to the Government which, superficially, might be thought to be kind is that their housing policy over the past four or five years has been consistent. The trouble is that it has been consistently wrong. This is merely a continuation of the old argument about council house sales policy with all the old faults. It is a case of experience teaching Ministers nothing.
Labour Members object fundamentally to clause 1. The operation of the present sales policy is an extremely bad bargain for the public purse and local authorities, not as a collection of councillors, not as a bureaucratic piece of government machinery, but for the public purse in a much wider sense. It is a bad bargain for the people of Scotland.
In 1982 the average selling price of a council house was, according to a recent parliamentary answer, £8,375 and the average discount was 45 per cent. I was looking at an extremely good paper that was recently produced by the university of Aberdeen on the experiences in that city. It is interesting to note, for example, that in my former constituency, south Aberdeen, semi-detached houses in the Kincorth housing scheme were valued at just over £21,000. If the kind of discounts that are likely to be applicable in a settled scheme such as that are allowed, one begins to see that we are asking local authorities to sell off assets in a way which will make the management of their housing stock peculiarly difficult and which could not be justified in the light of the good business practice that the new race and the new generation of Tory Back Benchers is constantly urging upon us.
More important than the financial argument—in this alone I agree with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) — is the social argument, which is decisive. It has cropped up again and again during the course of the debate. Over the years Tory spokesmen have talked a great deal about choice, and about choice in housing. To Labour Members choice is a key issue but in a different sense. If the best of the housing stock is sold off — there is no doubt that that will happen — the remaining pool of letting accommodation will be impoverished. There has been no denial that that is happening. For a long time the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) was in charge of housing policy and he tried to disguise that fact. He thought that his amiable manner would compensate for the poverty of his argument at Question Time. The argument was a strict denial of what was happening. A recent parliamentary answer to a question from me dated 11 July shows that in 1982 in Scotland 9,220 houses were sold under the tenants' rights legislation but only 1,446 flats.
I commend the Aberdeen university study to the Minister. I am sure that it will be in his Department. In a careful and controlled way, looking at all the figures and experience, that study confirmed what probably all Labour Members know from experience in their constituency— that the semis and terraced houses sell and, by and large, the flats do not.
The product of the Government's policy is that those who have been fortunate in the lottery of allocation are doubly fortunate because they can capitalise on their luck by buying at these enormous discounts. The tragedy is that in the name of giving people choice we are pursuing a prejudiced policy which will reduce choice for those who wish to exercise the right to continue to rent property in the public sector. There is no especial virtue in going for that option. Nor is there any virtue in deciding to become an owner-occupier. It is a matter of personal preference and we should be providing a range of choice so that people can exercise their judgment.
In my constituency, as in many others, there is a constant stream of people who, understandably and rightly, are bitter because, having waited for a long time in the sophisticated, complicated and often frustrating process of allocation, they now see the housing which they covet—I do not mean covet in any narrow or unpleasant sense but in the sense that it is the right type and in the right place, the type of house which they have always wanted —being taken out of the letting pool for ever, and with present Government policies there is no prospect of its being replaced. Thus in terms of choice, there is a massive question mark—to put it as charitably as I can—over the effect of what the Government are trying to do.
I want there to be a legitimate home ownership option for as wide a range of people as possible in Scotland, and local government has a part to play in that. I should like to see in the future possibly the examination of the policy of building to sell by local authorities. Homesteading, which has been referred to in terms of the Glenelg Quadrant experiment, is something from which we can learn in the future. The kind of partnership scheme in South Rogerfield and Priesthill, which I am sure the Minister welcomed when it was initiated by Glasgow district council, has something to offer as part of the mix of opportunity in our housing stock.
What I find extraordinary is the fact that, at the same time as we are considering the Bill, the Minister is announcing initiatives—if one can so call them—in improvement and repair grants which put at risk those very schemes and imaginative experiments in housing. In the last year or so Scottish Office Ministers have been saying — to adopt the phrase of my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan)— that the sky is the limit, that the more people who approach local authorities and sign up for 90 per cent. improvement grants the better.
Local authorities and those applying to them were literally whooped on by ministerial clamour and were told that there would be no limit on the amount that could be spent. Indeed, on 10 October the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) wrote to the Glasgow housing convenor congratulating him on his efforts. One week later—not because of a variation in the level of grant but because of the attached announcements about next year's finance — housing repair and improvement grants came to a shuddering dead stop. I urge the Minister to address himself, at least in passing, to this problem because it is extremely relevant to what we are discussing in the wider context of housing policy.
Does the hon. Gentleman dispute what my right hon. Friend the Member for Govan said about his letter to Glasgow district council — I will deal with that one authority—saying that it could expect on the non-HRA account the same as, or perhaps less than, it was initially allocated in the current year, meaning that in 1984–85 it could expect £29 million as the best possible option? Does the right hon. Gentleman dispute that authority's calculation that the carry-over—even working as hard as it can to clear the backlog in the last six months of this year — into 1984–85 will be £57 million? If he does not seriously dispute those figures, Glasgow will not be able to honour its legal commitments.
Even if we managed to drive the Minister from his present intransigence, we should still be working on the basis that if that £57 million were found in 1984–85 not one new grant application would be processed in the second half of this and the whole of the next financial year. That is the situation which the city of Glasgow is facing, and it can be repeated in many other parts of Scotland.
It is fashionable—I have some sympathy for it—in Conservative circles sometimes to criticise the more extreme options of local government policy that are pursued by the far Left beyond the Labour party—the argument that there should be no rate or rent increases, no cuts and no redundancies. That which the Minister has done over the past few days — knowingly or, I fear, perhaps unknowingly—is just as destructive a form of anarchy and it has not even the redeeming virtue of compassion.
Only a few weeks ago the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst) appeared all bushy-tailed and bright-eyed on my television screen to tell me and other viewers how he had discovered a great campaign to increase the range of housing repairs and improvement grants and to raise the rateable value ceiling so that more of the burghers of Bearsden could improve their properties. Little did he think that only a few weeks later the whole system would be brought to what I described, I think rightly, as a shuddering stop. He said not a word about that.
I shall let the hon. Gentleman intervene in due course, although he did not give way to me. He has a confounded cheek to refer to the Glenelg Quadrant experiment and commend it to the House as a pattern for future initiatives. The experiment will be a non-starter unless improvement and repair grants are available to those who move in to homesteads. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about the future of that sort of innovation in housing policy, he should be knocking loudly and insistently at the door of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State demanding that he reconsiders what Glasgow councillors have described—in my view properly—as a betrayal.
It was pathetic to read in the columns of The Scotsman the other day that some loyal party apparatchik, representing himself as the agent in Glasgow for the Conservative party, had dissociated himself from Councillor Aitken and claimed that he did not speak for the Conservative party in Glasgow. I think that it is likely that Councillor Aitken does not speak for the Tory party in Glasgow because I fear that its members are a sad and supine lot on the whole.
I am satisfied that, when the enormity of what has happened becomes clear, Councillor Aitken's cries of pain will reflect the cries of pain that will come from Conservative voters in Glasgow, in the district council of Strathkelvin and Bearsden and in many other parts of Scotland. I hope that the Minister will tell us how he reconciles his oratory and sometimes hypocritical cant about being a unique champion of the owner-occupier with what he has done.
The hon. Gentleman's claims begin to appear extremely hollow when we consider that the Conservative party has deliberately forced up rates. They have not increased because of local government extravagance, whose performance has been rather better than that of central Government over the past few years. They have increased because the Secretary of State has consistently cut the Exchequer contribution. The percentage of local government expenditure met by Exchequer contributions has consistently fallen.
The Government claim to be especially concerned for ratepayers. They have blithely promised over a number of years to reform and, indeed, abolish, the domestic rate. However, a White Paper has appeared that comes out with the extraordinary gloss that the whole idea has been abandoned because there is no public demand for radical reform. If the Government had said, "We would have liked to do it and we promised to do it but we have reconsidered our promise because we realise that there is no workable solution," I would have had some respect for that approach and recognised the difficulties that they face. To blame the long-suffering public for their lack of action and to say, "We have put off our proposals; we could have implemented them but there is no clear public demand for change," seems to be another example of the blatant dishonesty that we have seen in almost every facet of the Government's housing policy.
It appears that there is some common ground on the right to repair. There is often a problem with the delivery of service and I think that I will be joined by most of my right hon. and hon. Friends in arguing that the real problem lies with resources. Given the cuts in housing support grant that have been introduced consistently over the years, there is bound to be a breakdown at the point of delivery of services. I do not accept that the problem stems from innate inefficiency in the public sector, as no doubt the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) would argue and has argued in many a tiresome pamphlet. However, there is a problem and on occasion tenants suffer. It is a problem that we must resolve.
As my hon. Friends have said consistently in the debate, the problem is that we are faced with an enabling measure. We are faced with no more than a political slogan. We do not know what lies behind it or the reality of the scheme hatched up in the recesses of the Scottish Office. The Minister has been remarkably coy about the details. He has said in correspondence with me that it would be discourteous to the House and in some way a slight of Parliament for him to reveal his hand in terms of the outline of the scheme before the Bill is on the statute book. I fear that it smacks of expediency, but I welcome the fact that he is now paying lip service to the need to respect Parliament and parliamentary processes.
I hope that the Minister remembers those fine words when he comes to the proposal in the recent White Paper on rating and valuation in Scotland to lump together a group of orders cutting the rate support grant of individual authorities on the ground that their spending is unreasonable and excessive. I hope that the Minister will remember his fine words when he considers that proposal, which means that the House cannot properly scrutinise the case of an individual authority. I can think of nothing more insulting to the concept of parliamentary scrutiny and the authority of the House.
However, we still do not know much about what is going on. It is important to ask what sort of animal is the scheme that we are being asked to buy. There are two broad approaches, one of which I find palatable and the other certainly not. First, we might be trying to create a fallback position when a district authority in Scotland has
culpably fallen short of its duties to repair a house after repeated requests for the work to be done. One might try to create a scheme whereby that tenant would go to the private sector, hire his own contractor, do the work and recover the cost from the district council. That is one concept. It is what the Scottish Consumer Council thinks clause 2 is all about. It states that it supports
the principle of allowing tenants to engage their own contractors to carry out repairs which would otherwise have to be done by their landlords.
There is another basis for one of the schemes. It would be based on the experience of Havering—a sort of son of Havering. In the London borough of Havering, there is a scheme that has been working for some time that is a method of privatisation by the back door. The idea is that it is not a fallback provision for a desperate situation when the landlord has failed to carry out his responsibilities but an open encouragement for tenants to take over the landlord's responsibilities. I see the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) nodding his head in delight. I do not think that he is the author of anything much worth considering, but at least in spirit he would love to be the author of that scheme.
The scheme is about the handyman with his Black and Decker tools deciding to do the work himself, not to cost his time and to make a profit. Although he gets only 75 per cent. of the real cost of the job, because he is not costing his own time and he is putting the money in his hip pocket he is making a notional profit. I use that word in a specialised sense. In that way, everyone is supposed to be happy.
I do not want to be party to a scheme that is merely a form of replacing a proper and adequate public service with piecemeal privatisation that some Conservative Back Benchers would like. If, after close consideration, it turns out that the scheme smacks of that, our agreement in principle will come to a sharp halt. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), said in a recent letter to me that I was raising legitimate issues of public concern but that the proper place to debate them was in the House. I welcome that, but I make it clear that the proper place to debate them is in the House when one has time to do so and one can table amendments. It is not appropriate to conduct consultations after the Bill is on the statute book when we have only one and a half hours in which to debate an order which we cannot amend, scrutinise properly or debate.
If we are not presented with a schedule and the Government do not come forward with draft schemes, how can we debate the subject properly in Committee? Must we have recourse to an endless series of new clauses each of which deals with one facet of what might be an order or could have been included in a schedule? The process will be extremely ugly and long-winded. It is in the Minister's interests to reveal his hand and produce a schedule so that we may have an informed and constructive debate for the common cause of achieving the right scheme.
Perhaps I can help the Minister by asking a few questions that will arise in Committee. He might like to anticipate answers to them now. I have been examining the English scheme which, we are assured, will not be followed slavishly. Does the Minister expect "costimates" by which nothing under £20 or over £200 will be included in the scheme? If so, that reveals much about the type of scheme it is and what type of work will be dealt with. Will common repairs be excluded from the scheme? That is another fundamental matter that limits the range of the scheme. They are excluded in the Department of the Environment consultation paper. We are entitled to know what the Minister has in mind.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Govan asked a vital question — what safeguards will there be for pensioners or those on supplementary benefit? A pensioner is unlikely to have a Black and Decker tool or the energy to carry out repairs. A person on supplementary benefit will not be able to employ a contractor as he will not be able to spend money before being recompensed. There is a danger that the better organised sectors of public housing that are more capable of dealing with bureaucracy or sophisticated systems will use these provisions to attract out-of-turn resources, thus distorting the distribution of resources in the public sector. We shall want to examine that closely in Committee.
Perhaps the Minister would like to say whether, as has been suggested to me, there will be not reimbursement but a system of rent credit for expenses incurred in getting work done. The Minister must know what he has in mind. When we have the schedule of rates, which represents the cost to the local authority of doing the work, will there be a 75 per cent. reimbursement as is the case in Havering or will there be a minimum reimbursement of 75 per cent. as is laid down in the Department of the Environment consultation document? Is the Minister prepared to say that the scheme will reimburse in full the costs borne by tenants who have had to have recourse to it for essential repairs?
What are the Minister's views about arbitration or a tribunal rather than sheriff court procedures? I believe strongly that we should simplify the system. The problem with common law remedies available to a tenant is that they are unworkable as they involve going to the courts. That is a difficult, expensive and forbidding process. If we build recourse to the courts into the new system which gives tenants more accessible rights we shall build in exactly the same faults as those contained in existing common law rights. The Minister must address himself to the problem of simplification.
I am airing only a small selection of points that I look forward to canvassing in Committee. I should like to draw the Minister's attention to two vital propositions in the English consultation document. Paragraph 6.v states that a possible further ground for refusal might be that
the landlord intends to carry out the repairs within 28 days of the tenant's application".
Is that likely to be included as a specified ground in the Scottish scheme? If so, I warn the Minister that 28 days is too short. Paragraph 6.vii is even more interesting. It says that a further ground for refusal might be that
the repair is not reasonably necessary for the personal comfort of the tenant and the remedy is part of a planned and budgeted programme of maintenance which will be carried out by the landlord … not more than one year from the date of the tenant's application.
Someone who has rain pouring through his roof will go home with a song in his heart when he learns that there is a planned programme for doing something about it within about a year. Will that be in the Scottish scheme? We must know the answers to these questions if we are to have any sort of legitimate and intelligent debate. There must be adequate scrutiny as well as good will on the part of
Ministers. There must be a willingness to listen, as they have not listened before, to the weight of evidence and representation, be it from Shelter, the Scottish Consumer Council, the Scottish Tenants Organisation or the vast number of others who will no doubt want to bend the Minister's ear.
If we do not get that form of good will, whatever scheme the Minister introduces will be a waste of time. I draw his attention to the document issued by Havering council on tenant participation and I commend paragraph 1·4 to his attention. It states:
The success of a local authority tenant self-help repairs scheme may be particularly dependent upon the efficiency of its administration, the manner in which the scheme is 'marketed'"—
that is interesting—
to its tenants, the determination of elected representatives and the commitment and enthusiasm of all local authority officers".
Such trust, which according to Havering is essential if the scheme is to succeed, has been badly damaged over the last four or five years. The Minister will have to show much flexibility and the willingness to receive new ideas if we are to get a scheme that has support over a broad range, otherwise what we do will be a total waste of time. It will be unworkable and will bring heartbreak and confusion rather than help to hard-pressed tenants.
This is a minor unimportant Bill in the totality of the disaster in the Scottish housing sector. The new build programme is at a standstill; the shortfall in sheltered housing, even taking the Minister's own criteria, is some 30,000 housing units; and under this Government we have seen housing support grant cut by almost two thirds in cash terms. If we look at the expenditure White Paper, which brings worse and more depressing news year after year, all we are offered is more cuts to come.
Now there is even a threat to take further measures to control the ability of local authorities to take a contribution from the rate fund to help with the housing account. That is another piece of the mechanism of oppression that is making a mockery out of local democracy.
I hope that the Minister will redeem himself, at least to a marginal extent, by being helpful with this legislation. However, his and the Government's record is a form of statutory vandalism based on predjudice and blinkered insensitivity to the real problems facing tenants in the Scottish public sector. Measured against the grim reality —and in many ways it is grim—of falling resources and crumbling standards, the Bill is a pitiful apology for what ought to be an enlightened and radical housing policy. We shall protest in the Lobby tonight.
I confess to feeling quite breathless after that gallop around the course from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). I thought that the speech of the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) spread itself across a larger area of housing than that dealt with by the Bill, but he was surpassed by the hon. Member for Garscadden, who even managed to touch on the rating and valuation White Paper. Conservative Members who know of the hon. Gentleman's aspirations this week will understand why he spread his views so wide.
In view of the way that the debate has developed, it may be convenient for the House if I deal briefly with the point made by the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend, although it is perhaps not strictly within the scope of the Bill. They both referred to the improvement and repairs grants, which have been a matter of some debate. Let me try to put this into context. I listened with much attention to the display of anger from the right hon. Member for Govan, and cast my mind back to when the enhancement of these two grants was introduced. I could not remember any great cries of welcome then from the right hon. Member for Govan. Tonight I did not hear any cries of welcome for the success that this enhancement has achieved within his city of Glasgow. For all that he has said, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that as a result of this enhancement, some £200 million will have been spent under these grants over last year and up to 31 March this year. That in itself is something for which we in Scotland should be grateful.
The special financial arrangements which allowed authorities to spend outwith their cash limits on improvement and repairs grants and the higher level of repairs grants were always temporary, as I am sure the right hon. Member for Govan knows. We extended the scheme once before, when we raised the higher grant level from nine months to two years, and both the grant levels and the financial arrangements have been a considerable success in stimulating work. However, we never led anyone to suppose that these arrangements could last for ever and we have given authorities six months' notice that they are to come to an end. Throughout the summer, local authorities asked me to give them the earliest possible notification, and by making the announcement last week, that is what we sought to do.
We recognise that the ending of the special arrangements will require authorities to make hard decisions about priorities, but they have always had to consider discretionary grants against an assessment of wider priorities. Some authorities have complained that the ending of the financial arrangements will give them an unmanageable problem for next year because of the extent of the commitments that they have taken on. Let me reassure them and the right hon. Member for Govan that we shall fully cover all legally binding commitments entered into before 20 October in determining authorities' allocations for the next financial year. My Department has given a broad hint to authorities of the likely availability of resources next year as a framework for planning, although I emphasise that no final decisions have been taken, and my officials will consider the implications of their programmes with authorities.
I listened carefully to what the right hon. Member for Govan had to say. Glasgow district council has requested a meeting and my officials are seeking to arrange a meeting with the district council later this week. However, it is important, as we made clear in the letter that we sent to authorities, that we know the extent of their commitments in expenditure for next year. Perhaps the importance is exemplified by the figures that the right hon. Member for Govan gave, which show how important it is to make sure that the figures are accurate.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke of £55 million on the HRA, which is somewhat odd as it is already to receive 70 per cent. of this year's figure of £60 million. It is hard to accept, although these matters must be looked at, that Glasgow has already committed more than £30 million to something which, if it had, would be ultra vires.
The hon. Gentleman says that he is giving me an assurance that if commitments are made they will be met. If the commitments are £112 million, does that mean that Glasgow will get at least such an allocation next year? That will mean that no further allocations for repairs can be taken, but will Glasgow get the £112 million? If it does, what is the purpose of the letter that the Minister sent last week, which contradicts the assertion that he is making now?
I said from the time that the announcement was made, and I said it again tonight, that commitments that have been legally incurred—that is applications that have been properly approved with expenditure ramifications for next year—will be covered in the allocations that are made to those authorities. I cannot be any more specific with figures because, as I told the right hon. Gentleman, we do not know the figures; it is those that we are asking the local authorities to provide for us.
If Glasgow is committed to £112 million, and if the allocation—based on the letter last week—is to be only £89 million, how will Glasgow receive £112 million? Where will the difference of £23 million come from? Will it be additional money, or will it be deducted from another authority?
We cannot make any predictions until we know the figures. The right hon. Gentleman must accept my reassurance on the matter.
The right hon. Gentleman showed uncharacteristic coyness when talking about the Bill. I sympathise with his difficulties because I have been following the debate within the Labour party during the summer about a change in policy. I understand that the matter was referred to a higher authority for some form of divine guidance. Whether or not that divine guidance has been given, the right hon. Gentleman tonight paid a short visit to the Bill and left it with a sigh of relief.
Hidden in the right hon. Gentleman's speech, like a ferret in the undergrowth, was a quiet opposition to the Bill. If he hoped that his categorical assurances that he was opposed to the sale of council houses would not be noticed, I must tell him that we will ensure that they are noticed—just as we shall ensure that the similar attitude of the Scottish National party will be made well known to the tenants of Scotland who want to own their council houses.
I have given way to the right hon. Gentleman twice. He must allow me to continue with my speech.
Opposition Members must realise that the right to buy gives people living in the public sector probably their only practical opportunity to become home owners. It breaks down barriers; it gives those who wish to own their own home access to capital and a firm stake in society. The receipts generated bring in valuable additional resources to housing authorities. That is why the right to buy has enjoyed wide support.
Since 1979 more than 75,000 public sector tenants in Scotland have expressed an interest in buying their homes. Nearly 40,000 sales have been completed and there are many more in the pipeline. In broad terms, we shall shortly reach the stage where one in every 20 eligible tenants will have bought their homes. That is something that we should view with pride.
I am especially encouraged because recent applications have been running at more than 1,500 per month, which is a large and sustained increase over the 1981 level. That confounds the claim of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) that interest faded away after the initial spate of applications. Far from fizzling out, the rate of applications has risen steadily and shows no signs of levelling off.
If the hon. Gentleman will listen to the remainder of my speech, his question will be answered.
The improvements to the right-to-buy provisions contained in the Bill will enable more people to become home owners. The main beneficiaries will be those who have been tenants for more than 20 years. The increase in the maximum discount from 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. will enable more longstanding tenants—many of them nearing the end of their working lives or already in retirement — to buy at prices that fairly reflect their tenancy record and the resources likely to be available to them.
It appears that Opposition Members who oppose the right to buy also oppose any rise in the discount. As usual, they speak about discounts as though it were in some way a charge on local authorities. They do not believe that authorities should be generating receipts from sales, but at the same time they argue that authorities should be generating higher receipts to combat housing needs. They must make up their minds.
I believe that tenants have a right not only to buy their own homes but to buy at a discount which reflects their tenancy records. Tenants who buy are not scroungers. They have been paying rent regularly for 10, 20 or 30 years. They are the ones who have contributed substantially to the costs of their housing. It is only fair and equitable that the price that they pay at the end of the day should reflect this. This is why we introduced a rising scale of discount related to the length of tenancy.
It should also be remembered—the hon. Member for Garscadden may remember this from the days when he practised law full time—that right-to-buy sales are sales of occupied dwellings where the tenants have full security of tenure. If the tenants do not buy, they are unlikely to move away. Any house sold on the open market with a sitting tenant, as the hon. Gentleman knows, commands a substantially lower price than its value with vacant possession—often by as much as one third or more. It is right that the price to the tenant should reflect this.
A number of hon. Gentlemen said that only the better houses are being sold. There is some evidence that the majority of sales have been of semi-detached and terraced houses with gardens, and that sales have tended to be in the more popular areas. This is only what one might expect initially. Under local authority allocation policies, it tends to be the older tenants who qualify for the more desirable houses. Increasing sales are now taking place across the middle range of stock and in less popular areas. I have no doubt that sales in these estates will have a knock-on effect, breaking down barriers between one type of development and another and between one type of tenure and another, to the benefit of all.
I am surprised that during his tours around Scotland the hon. Gentleman has not seen what I have seen—the increasing number of council houses that are being sold in estates other than the best estates. Although I believe in statistics, I believe also in the evidence that I see. The right hon. Member for Provan made a gentle dig at me when he talked about the Secretary of State's statement some time ago that diversification improved the quality of life. I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would have seen in his city of Glasgow that where diversification has taken place it has improved the quality of life. I made this clear to his council in a way which has already been referred to tonight. There is evidence that an uplift occurs in an area where diversification is created by the sale of council houses and in other ways. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman should discount this.
The right hon. Member for Provan accused me of being hostile to local authorities. I am not, but I believe that local authorities should serve people rather than dictate to them. Perhaps that is the difference between his political philosophy and mine.
Those who allege that only the best of the housing stock is being sold, as usual go on to claim that in some way this reduces the choice available for remaining tenants or those on the waiting list. This of course is nonsense. There is little evidence that if tenants were not allowed to buy their own homes in the public sector they would move out to buy in the private sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Corrie) made the point very well, that the vast majority would carry on renting, generally for a considerable number of years, and the houses would not become available for reletting on a time scale which is relevant to current or forseeable needs.
I shall not give way because I do not have much time and I have much to cover.
Few can seriously believe that the majority of tenants will pack their bags and leave tomorrow if they have not bought. The sale of council houses has no measurable effect on the prospects of those currently seeking houses or transfers.
A number of my hon. Friends have mentioned delays in the sales of certain properties. In particular, I listened carefully to what my hon. Friends the Members for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst) and for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) had to say. The majority of housing authorities have responded favourably to the introduction of the right to buy. I remain worried, however, about the length of time which a small number of authorities appear to be taking to process sales. I am determined that the wishes of tenants will not be needlessly frustrated. A few authorities appear to be dragging their feet over sales. It is not simply their tenants' wishes and aspirations which those councils are opposing; they are opposing the wishes of the House as well.
I believe that we have been indulgent towards these authorities. We recognise that they might need time to adapt and work out the necessary procedures to cope with the new rights which have been given to tenants. It is now, however, nearly three years since the right to buy was introduced. In January of this year my predecessor wrote to a number of authorities which appeared to be failing in their statutory duties. Most have subsequently given undertakings or evidence of improved performance. I continue, however, to be worried by the activities of a few authorities and I shall be watching their performance closely over the coming months. I trust, however, that even at this late stage they will seek an improvement in their records.
Our policies seek above all to increase choice in housing. I recognise that not everyone will choose or be able to buy. We are equally concerned to extend the right of those who will continue renting to help them enjoy as many of the benefits of owner occupation as possible: in particular, the freedom to live in their own homes in the way that they wish—to improve, decorate and carry out repairs to their wishes.
The tenants' charter has already taken considerable strides in this direction. The introduction of a right to repair will be a further major advance along this road. At the election, the strengthening of tenants' rights to repair had the support of all the major parties.
I think it is generally agreed that housing authorities" repairs services could and should be made more efficient and cost-effective; and that many authorities at present do not provide an adequate response to tenants' requirements, which are only in the best interests of the maintenance and improvement of the stock. Delays, lack of action, bureaucracy and shoddy work are frequent causes of complaint. I am sure that we all have them in our constituencies. All of us will have examples of what I believe has led to the need to introduce this right.
There is a case in my constituency of a man who secured the tenancy of a house in 1976 and reported at the time that there were loose floorboards. Several times every year he approached the housing department to remind it of the need for the repairs. At no time did it deny that this was necessary, but it took him until earlier this year to have the repairs effected. Two months after he brought the matter to me, those repairs were effected. It is an excellent example of where this right is needed.
The Bill sets out the substantive features of our proposed right to repair scheme. It is the framework within which it will operate. The scheme will enable tenants to carry out repairs which would otherwise be the responsibility of the landlord and they will reimbursed.
The right hon. Member for Govan seemed to attack us for not yet having held our consultations. Until the principle has been adopted, as I hope it will be in the vote at the end of the debate, it would have been discourteous to the House to have carried out consultations. Had I done so, he would have been the first to point out to me the discourtesy.
If the principle is approved today, we shall wish to proceed to early consultations with the local authorities and other interested bodies on the detailed operation of the scheme, which will be the subject of subsequent regulations. I hope to begin the detailed consultations within two to three weeks and if hon. Members who have asked for further information would find it helpful, I shall be making a copy of our consultation paper, describing our proposals for the scheme, available in time for their consideration of the relevant clauses in Committee. The form of that paper will allow members of the Committee to express their views because, as my right hon. Friend said, we are sincere about wishing to consult on this scheme. We wish to get the scheme right and we wish to consult as widely as possible. I hope that we can reassure the members of the Committee that we want to get the right scheme, and that if they approve the principle we shall go ahead and produce it as a result of those consultations.
My right hon. Friend has already given some details of the scheme, and I hope that we can deal with more of them in Committee. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) asked how local authorities would determine the cost of carrying out repairs themselves so that the tenant could claim from the council. It is difficult to believe that authorities cannot calculate the cost of individual repairs; how else can an authority satisfy itself that it is getting value for money from its repair service? I envisage that in practice authorities will wish to draw up, and regularly revise, a schedule of costs for typical repairs, and the estimated cost of individual repairs could be determined by reference to that schedule as needed.
The hon. Members for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) and for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) asked whether Government funds would be made available to housing authorities for repairs. The repairs that I see arising out of this scheme are those that would otherwise be the responsibility of the landlord, and there would be no repairs that are not at present the landlord's responsibility. If they are being carried out properly at present, there should be no extra expense as a result of the scheme.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North asked about repairs to multi-storey flats and about structural faults. I accept at this stage, although it must be a matter for consideration in consultation, that it will probably be necessary to exclude such major structural repairs. It will probably also be necessary to exclude repairs that are common to several dwellings. The hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) asked about my discussions with the Federation of Housing Associations. The federation has made several useful suggestions about the right of repair, and I shall take them into account. I have also given an undertaking that the federation will be included in the forthcoming consultations.
One of the lessons and features of the general election was the continuous stream of evidence that traditional attitudes to housing in Scotland are changing. People rightly want more freedom and more choice in their housing. Tenants are no longer prepared to accept the unnecessary restrictions or the pettifogging bureaucracy that has become synonymous with too many council estates in Scotland. They look to their rights. They want the right to buy, not necessarily for today, not even sometimes for tomorrow, but for the future occasion when they might wish to make the transfer from tenant to owner. We have given them that right, and in the Bill we extend it and confirm it.
Those people also wish to know that the years of paying rent are not wasted years, but that if they eventually decide to buy, those hard-earned rent payments and the care and love that they have given to their home will be to their credit. The Bill again extends and confirms that. They also wish to know that if they exercise their right to remain as tenants, they will have a basic say in the houses which are their homes, and that they will not be frustrated by restrictions which prevent their enjoyment, or delays in repairs and maintenance which can only undermine their pleasure in the home that is their base. They wish to know that those rights will not be taken away from them. They have heard nothing from the right hon. Member for Govan to suggest that that will not be so, but I fear that that is his loss and not theirs, because the people of Scotland will reject him as they rejected him before because he is not prepared to listen to what they want. I ask my hon. Friends to give the Bill a resounding Second Reading.
|Division No. 47]||[10.00 pm|
|Adley, Robert||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.|
|Alexander, Richard||Dover, Denshore|
|Alton, David||Dunn, Robert|
|Amess, David||Eggar, Tim|
|Ancram, Michael||Emery, Sir Peter|
|Arnold, Tom||Evennett, David|
|Ashby, David||Eyre, Reginald|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Fairbairn, Nicholas|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Fallon, Michael|
|Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.||Favell, Anthony|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)||Forman, Nigel|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)|
|Baldry, Anthony||Fox, Marcus|
|Batiste, Spencer||Franks, Cecil|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Fraser, Peter (Angus East)|
|Beith, A. J.||Galley, Roy|
|Bellingham, Henry||Goodlad, Alastair|
|Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay)||Greenway, Harry|
|Benyon, William||Grist, Ian|
|Berry, Sir Anthony||Gummer, John Selwyn|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Harvey, Robert|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Bottomley, Peter||Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael|
|Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)||Hawksley, Warren|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Hayes, J.|
|Braine, Sir Bernard||Hayward, Robert|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Hickmet, Richard|
|Bright, Graham||Hind, Kenneth|
|Brinton, Tim||Hirst, Michael|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Browne, John||Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Holt, Richard|
|Bruinvels, Peter||Howard, Michael|
|Bryan, Sir Paul||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Howells, Geraint|
|Budgen, Nick||Hubbard-Miles, Peter|
|Bulmer, Esmond||Hunt, David (Wirral)|
|Butcher, John||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Butterfill, John||Hunter, Andrew|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)||Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)|
|Carlisle, John (N Luton)||Jessel, Toby|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Carttiss, Michael||Johnston, Russell|
|Cartwright, John||Jones, Robert (W Herts)|
|Chapman, Sydney||Kennedy, Charles|
|Chope, Christopher||Kirkwood, Archibald|
|Churchill, W. S.||Knight, Gregory (Derby N)|
|Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)||Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Knowles, Michael|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Lang, Ian|
|Colvin, Michael||Lawler, Geoffrey|
|Cope, John||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Cormack, Patrick||Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)|
|Corrie, John||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Couchman, James||Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)|
|Crouch, David||Lightbown, David|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)|
|Dicks, T.||Lord, Michael|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Lyell, Nicholas|
|McCrea, Rev William||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Macfarlane, Neil||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|MacGregor, John||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)||Sims, Roger|
|Maclean, David John.||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Maclennan, Robert||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|McQuarrie, Albert||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Major, John||Speed, Keith|
|Malins, Humfrey||Speller, Tony|
|Malone, Gerald||Spencer, D.|
|Maples, John||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Marland, Paul||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Marlow, Antony||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Mather, Carol||Stern, Michael|
|Maude, Francis||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Mawhinney, Dr Brian||Stevens, Martin (Fulham)|
|Mayhew, Sir Patrick||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Mellor, David||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Merchant, Piers||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Sumberg, David|
|Mills, lain (Meriden)||Tapsell, Peter|
|Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Mitchell, David (NW Hants)||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Moate, Roger||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)||Terlezki, Stefan|
|Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
|Moynihan, Hon C.||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Murphy, Christopher||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)|
|Neale, Gerrard||Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Needham, Richard||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Neubert, Michael||Thurnham, Peter|
|Newton, Tony||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Norris, Steven||Tracey, Richard|
|Onslow, Cranley||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Oppenheim, Philip||van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Ottaway, Richard||Viggers, Peter|
|Owen, Rt Hon Dr David||Wainwright, R.|
|Page, Richard (Herts SW)||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Parris, Matthew||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Walden, George|
|Penhaligon, David||Walker, Bill (T'side N)|
|Pollock, Alexander||Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Wall, Sir Patrick|
|Powley, John||Wallace, James|
|Prentice, Rt Hon Reg||Ward, John|
|Price, Sir David||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Proctor, K. Harvey||Watson, John|
|Raffan, Keith||Watts, John|
|Rathbone, Tim||Wheeler, John|
|Renton, Tim||Whitney, Raymond|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Wilkinson, John|
|Ridsdale, Sir Julian||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Rifkind, Malcolm||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Robinson, Mark (N'port W)||Wood, Timothy|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Woodcock, Michael|
|Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)||Yeo, Tim|
|Rossi, Sir Hugh||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Rost, Peter||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Ryder, Richard||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Sackville, Hon Thomas||Mr. Archie Hamilton and Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.|
|Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Banks, Tony (Newham NW)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Barron, Kevin|
|Ashton, Joe||Beckett, Mrs Margaret|
|Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)||Bermingham, Gerald|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Blair, Anthony|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Lambie, David|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||Lamond, James|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Leighton, Ronald|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Lewis, Terence (Worsley)|
|Canavan, Dennis||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Loyden, Edward|
|Clarke, Thomas||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Clay, Robert||McGuire, Michael|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)||McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Cohen, Harry||Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor|
|Coleman, Donald||McTaggart, Robert|
|Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.||Madden, Max|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton North)||Marek, Dr John|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Martin, Michael|
|Cowans, Harry||Mason, Rt Hon Roy|
|Craigen, J. M.||Maxton, John|
|Crowther, Stan||Michie, William|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Mikardo, Ian|
|Cunningham, Dr John||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)||Nellist, David|
|Deakins, Eric||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Dewar, Donald||O'Neill, Martin|
|Dixon, Donald||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Dobson, Frank||Parry, Robert|
|Dormand, Jack||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Douglas, Dick||Pike, Peter|
|Dubs, Alfred||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||Prescott, John|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.||Redmond, M.|
|Eadie, Alex||Richardson, Ms Jo|
|Eastham, Ken||Robertson, George|
|Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n SE)||Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)|
|Evans, John (St. Helens N)||Rogers, Allan|
|Fatchett, Derek||Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Rowlands, Ted|
|Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)||Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)|
|Fisher, Mark||Skinner, Dennis|
|Flannery, Martin||Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)|
|Foster, Derek||Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)|
|Foulkes, George||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Strang, Gavin|
|Garrett, W. E.||Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)|
|Gourlay, Harry||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|Hamilton, James (M'well N)||Thorne, Stan (Preston)|
|Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Tinn, James|
|Hardy, Peter||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Wareing, Robert|
|Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Welsh, Michael|
|Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith||White, James|
|Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Home Robertson, John||Wilson, Gordon|
|Hoyle, Douglas||Winnick, David|
|Hughes, Mark (Durham)||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Mr. Norman Hogg and Mr. Hugh McCartney.|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil|